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Aftermath of The Groveland Four – Justice Denied, 67 Years Later

By Zenitha Prince



Three of the four ‘Groveland Four’ around 1949. PHOTO:

( – A White woman crying rape. That was all it took for four African-American young men, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Ernest Thomas and Charles Greenlee to be shanghaied into a legal lynching that changed their lives—and those of their loved ones—forever. The accusation, and what came after during that summer of 1949, turned the citrus town of Groveland, Fla., into center stage, where familiar actors such as the Ku Klux Klan, NAACP and civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall starred in a macabre theater of Jim Crow (in)justice. This is the story of the Groveland Four.

As a child growing up in Florida, Carolyn Greenlee felt there was a black mark against her last name.

“Growing up, I was ashamed because I didn’t want anyone to know my father was in prison and accused of rape…. I never really talked about my father,” she told the AFRO.

The now-66-year-old Nashville consultant was not even born back in 1949 when her father, Charles Greenlee and the rest of the men dubbed the “Groveland Four” were, without due process, arrested, tortured, tried and sentenced for the supposed rape of then-17-year-old Norma Padgett in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice the state had seen.

Greenlee, who was 16 at the time, was relatively lucky: he was sentenced to life in prison, and paroled after 12 years. Ernest Thomas, his friend, was hunted down and killed by a posse and never saw the inside of a courtroom. Samuel Shepherd, a World War II veteran, was summarily executed by Sheriff Willis McCall on his way to a new trial, and his friend Walter Irvin, who was also shot multiple times, escaped death at the sheriff’s hands only to be re-sentenced to death by an all-White jury. Irvin’s sentence was later commuted and he was paroled in 1968.

For decades, the case of the Groveland Four remained a skeleton in Lake County’s closet, though the survivors of the four Negro young men remained haunted by its spectre.

“I was deprived of having a father and deprived of him being there for some of the important moments of my life,” Ms. Greenlee recalled. “I grew up angry because I was told he was put in prison because of something he did not do. I grew up with a resentment for White folk.”

Greenlee said she involved herself in the Black Power and other social justice movements, and even thought about becoming a lawyer to avenge her father.

Her father told her she could not afford to live a life fueled by hate, however, and asked her not to pursue the case while he was alive because he did not want to relive it.

“Hate destroys, he told me. It does not heal; it does not help. He forgave, he said, because he had children he had to help grow and he couldn’t do that if he was hate-filled,” Ms. Greenlee recalled. “He taught me to get rid of that anger that was inside me.”

Greenlee was 11 when her father was paroled. Upon his release, the self-taught electrician started his own company and spent his life in quiet service to others—hiring people no one else would take, such as ex-cons—and to his family. He died in 2012.

Now released from her promise, Ms. Greenlee and other members of her family—in September of that same year—sent a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott asking for the Groveland Four’s exoneration. The packet, which Gary Corsair—author of {The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching}—helped them prepare, also included FBI documents such as a doctor’s records showing that there was no physical evidence that Norma Padgett had been gang-raped by four men.

In October 2012, the governor’s office responded, but Scott offered no apology and referred the family to the state attorney general’s office.

By early 2015, all efforts to exonerate the Groveland Four had fallen flat, including legislation introduced into the Florida Legislature by Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

That’s when, Greenlee said, she received a call from University of Florida senior Josh Venkataraman asking permission to start a petition seeking exoneration of her father and the other accused men. Wary at first—because of all of the “kooks” that had begun coming out of the woodwork after the publication of Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book {Devil in the Grove}—Greenlee said something just “clicked” with Josh.

“I had already exhausted every avenue that I had and then God sent me Josh out of the blue,” Greenlee said. “I was floored.”

Venkataraman, who is in his last term as a TV and film production major, said he read about the Groveland case in a history class. But, it wasn’t until he saw a road sign for Groveland on a journey back to school that the history lesson became real and he felt spurred to take action.

“Although it was a highway sign it felt like a real sign. And, I began thinking about what I could do to help,” the 22-year-old told the AFRO.

“The fact that these guys were my age meant it could have been me. And the fact that I had no idea this happened before I read the book and that it was so close to home, in places that I recognized, made me realize, this is real. It’s not just a story anymore,” he added.

In the first six months of its posting, the petition garnered only a couple hundred signatures.

“I was giving up hope,” the college senior said.

Then he decided to contact Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and ask for his help in publicizing the case and the exoneration initiative. In September 2015, Pitts wrote the opinion piece, “The Groveland Four: justice denied for 66 years … and counting.”

Venkataraman had hoped for publicity around the state, never realizing Pitts was a nationally-syndicated columnist and that the piece would be read far and wide.

“I started getting signatures from all over the country and from other countries as well,” he said.

Greenlee said she welcomed the new interest in the 66-year-old injustice because ignorance is what often perpetuates racism and other discrimination, the signs of which are clearly visible today.

“The more things change, the more things stay the same,” she said. “Race is still alive and well whether we want to stick our heads in the sand about it or not. We see it every night (in the news) on TV.

“Until we start to bring out things from the past that we have shut up in the closet we will never heal,” she added. “If we don’t have open conversations and clear the air to let young people like a Josh, who wasn’t born at time of the Groveland Four case, know that things have to change, we’re going to keep repeating the mistakes of the past.”

Since the publication of Pitts’ column, momentum seems to have built. On Feb. 16, the city of Groveland issued a proclamation asking Gov. Scott to exonerate the Groveland Four and on March 15, Lake County—where Groveland is located—issued a similar proclamation.

“For myself and for the city of Groveland, we do offer our sincere apologies,” Mayor Tim Loucks told relatives of the Groveland Four in making the proclamation. “The biggest goal of the city of Groveland and south Lake County is to allow this to be healed. It’s been ignored for 67 years. There comes a time when you can’t ignore, should not ignore anything like this.”

Loucks told the AFRO that he had been researching the case for two years, reviewing FBI case notes and interviewing 50-60 people, who all had varying stories about what happened.

“While we could not say with any certainty what happened [to Norma Padgett], we know that the trial itself was not fair and that they should not have even been tried. The evidence they were convicted on was clearly not enough and we felt that the entire matter was racially motivated,” said Loucks about the impetus for the proclamation. He added, “This is the only thing the rest of the council and I felt we can do to bring healing to their remaining family members.”

The Groveland official said they are also planning to lobby for the 2017 passage of Sen. Thompson’s legislation, which was reintroduced this session but never passed out of committee.

“We feel that a strong effort from the bottom up—from the city and county where this injustice happened—would help to move the legislation along,” Loucks said.

Greenlee said the recent developments have breathed new life into her quest.

“I have one mission for the rest of my life and that is to get my father exonerated. And, it’s going to happen,” she said. “Truth will prevail.”

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