A ghost from Florida’s segregated past was exorcised yesterday when newly elected Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida elected Cabinet voted unanimously to pardon the Groveland Four nearly 70 years after they were falsely accused and convicted of rape.
The Groveland Four’s case started out none too dissimilar from thousands of others that led to lynching or indefinite incarceration of Black men, women and children during the nearly 80 year period of lawlessness and white vigilantism known as Jim Crow.
On July 16, 1949, Anna Padgett, a 17-year old white woman, and her husband Willie, 22, claimed that they were attacked by four young Black men on a country road in the town of Tavares, which is in Lake County near Orlando.
(Willie and Anna Padgett circa 1949)
Local law enforcement rounded up four suspects: Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, age 16; Samuel Shepherd, age 22, and Walter Irvin, age 22. Why these four were identified remains a mystery; Shepherd and Irvin, both World War II veterans,had drawn the enmity of local white males who found their predilection for wearing their uniform in public “uppity.”
(Sheriff Willis McCall and three of the Groveland Four)
On the night of the alleged offense, Shepherd and Irvin had been drinking in the all-black town of Eatonville, and there were no eyewitnesses or objective evidence to even remotely suggest that they had encountered the Padgetts–let alone beaten the husband or raped the wife.
Looming large in this case–literally and figuratively–was Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, a textbook “Florida Cracker” and deadly brute. McCall understood the public relations aspect of Jim Crow violence long before men like Birmingham’s Bull Connor and Albany, Georgia’s Sheriff Laurie Pritchett would become internationally infamous for savagely beating civil rights protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, in the 1960s.
After Shepherd, Irvin and Greenlee were rounded up, the trio endured a night of being viciously beaten by McCall and his deputies in the basement of the Tavares Jail. By morning, rape “confessions” had been secured.
Ernest Thomas, the fourth suspect, got word that he was wanted and fled the area. Thomas made it 200 miles away to Madison, Florida, near Tallahassee. The next day, a posse that had been commissioned by Sheriff McCall tracked him down and riddled him with so many gunshot wounds that his remains reportedly were barely identifiable. Much as is the case to this very day across America, the posse “claimed” that Thomas was armed and attacked them; a coroner’s inquest ruled that their actions were “justifiable homicide.”
(Thomas, pictured here, was riddled with bullets days after the alleged rape)
Back in Lake County, the local whites began clamoring for a lynching party. Sheriff McCall and his deputies warned local blacks that they needed to leave town for a spell to avoid getting hurt or killed by mob violence.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by future United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, dispatched civil rights lawyer Franklin Williams to defend the surviving three young Black males. Williams took photographs of their bruises and cuts as evidence that the confessions were false. Perhaps fearing that the forced confessions would lead to a reversal on appeal, prosecutors did not introduce them into evidence during the trial.
(Thurgood Marshall and associates during court proceedings on the Groveland Four case)
Prosecutors did not need the confessions; presiding Judge Thomas Futch all but guaranteed convictions when he refused to allow lead Attorney Williams to introduce testimony from the medical doctor who examined Mrs. Padgett and concluded that not only were there no bruises, cuts or other forms of vaginal trauma that could indicate rape, but that there was no evidence of sperm or any other biological markers such as foreign pubic hairs to suggest a rape either.
The jury deliberated barely 70 minutes before convicting all three young Black men…
As per Florida law at the time, Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, and Greenlee, the 16-year-old, was sentenced to life.
While Greenlee chose not to appeal his judgment and sentence, Shepherd and Irvin did and were once again represented by Marshall and the NAACP.
While the appeal was pending, legendary Florida NAACP leader Harry T. Moore petitioned then Governor Fuller Warren to suspend Sheriff Willis McCall. Barely six weeks after Moore’s request, on Christmas Day, both he and his wife were killed by a high impact bomb that was planted at their home in Mims, Florida.
(The Moores and their fire-bombed home in Mims, Florida)
The FBI would later conclude that the Moores were murdered by the Orlando Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan, but no connection was “officially” made that McCall ordered or was complicit in their demise.
After Thurgood Marshall won the appeal and a new trial for Shepherd and Irvin, Sheriff McCall once again made headlines when, while transporting the pair to a court hearing, he shot them–claiming that while cuffed and shackled, they tried to attack him after he let them out of the vehicle to urinate.
(Sheriff McCall after shooting Shepherd and Irvin)
Shepherd died instantly but Irvin, who was shot in the torso and neck, miraculously survived.
Once Irvin recovered from his wounds, he stood trial a second time. Marshall moved for a change of venue to Ocala, Florida due to pretrial publicity, but the result was the same–Irvin was convicted and sentenced to death.
The next year, newly elected Florida Governor Leroy Collins commuted Irvin’s sentence to life after concluding that the evidence did not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Why Collins did not issue a pardon and release him outright remains a mystery, but was likely due to not wanting to impact his future re-election chances by upsetting McCall and other Klan oriented Florida Democrats. However, within a decade, Collins would morph into one of the leading southern Democratic politicians that supported civil and voting rights for Blacks.
(Governor Collins shown here talking to Andrew Young during the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965)
Greenlee, the 16-year old sentenced to life, was paroled in 1960 and died in 2012 at the age of 78. Irvin would be granted parole in 1968 and sadly, died the following year.
Having been raised by parents who grew up in Florida during Jim Crow, I knew the story of the Groveland Four quite well. Curiously, several years ago, while handling a serious criminal case in Ocala, Florida, a white deputy flat-out refused to answer my questions during a deposition, stating off the record with a smirk, “I don’t have to answer shit that you ask me.” Trying to remain calm despite my ire boiling steadily, I told him that he could answer the questions now, or he could answer them from a jail cell when I seek contempt charges from the court.
What I really wanted to do was to turn the table over and beat that smirk off of his face, but I remembered all of the indignities that Thurgood Marshall suffered in that very same courthouse 60 some odd years earlier and remained rather collected. (The deputy then chose to answer questions immediately).
I give this recent personal history to remind how slowly the wheels of justice have churned in Florida, a state that due to clever marketing by Disney and the citrus industries, often finds folks forgetting that Florida was a member of the Confederacy and an incubator of Jim Crow lynching and misery the same as Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and the like.
While there is no measure of justice that can truly right the wrong that was perpetrated upon the Groveland Four, I extend kudos to State Representative Bobby DuBose for sponsoring a 2017 resolution that was unanimously passed by the Florida House of Representatives apologizing to the Groveland Four, and exonerating them of their offenses.
I also commend Governor Ron DeSantis for his stance on this matter, where he commented, “Seventy years is a long time…and that’s the amount of time four young men have been wrongly written into Florida history for crimes they did not commit and punishments they did not deserve.”
(Rep. DuBose, above, and Governor DeSantis below)
The new governor’s comment came despite the fact that Anna Padgett, who is still alive, appeared before him and stated, “I’m the victim of that night. I tell you now, that it’s been on my mind for 70 years. I was 17 years old and it’s never left my mind…I’m begging y’all not to give the pardons because they did it. If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”
(“Missy” Padgett, in Tallahassee at the Capitol, still lying despite overwhelming evidence of her mendacity)
Missy Padgett, now 87 years old, was telling damnable lies about being raped back then; she is lying now, and she will likely go to rot in her grave still lying about what happened all of those years ago–and how four Black lives were ruined by her and her husband’s detestable mendacities.
While the Groveland Four pardons are commendable, this event provides a teachable moment for Governor DeSantis and others across Florida and America who can easily see where politicians and sheriffs committed malevolent acts according to race in ages past, but who struggle to see where the beatings and shootings of unarmed black men, women and children in the modern era are a recrudescence of this by-gone era.
Lest we forget…