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Lake County to consider a memorial to the Groveland Four on grounds of historic courthouse
Surviving family members of the Groveland Four, African-American men falsely accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County, wanted pardons to clear their relatives' names.
By Stephen Hudak
Lake County, which earned notoriety for the Groveland Four, should erect a permanent memorial on the grounds of its historic courthouse to recognize the injustices endured by the quartet falsely accused of raping a white teen in 1949, County Commission Chairwoman Leslie Campione said.
Campione, who two weeks ago appealed to the Florida Clemency Board before that body voted to posthumously pardon the men, said she will ask fellow commissioners on Tuesday to back her proposal for a historical monument recounting the Jim Crow-era tragedy.
“I feel it’s the right thing to do,” said Campione, who hopes to make the point Lake County is a better more accepting and diverse place today than decades ago.
Surviving relatives said they were intrigued by Campione’s proposal but want more details before giving their blessing to the idea of forging the story in bronze at the brick building in which three of the four were jailed, beaten and convicted.
“That’s heavy,” said Carol Greenlee, 69, daughter of Charles Greenlee. “But the devil’s in the details. We want to move forward not stay in the past. My father always said, ‘You can’t go forward if you’re always looking behind you.’”
Aaron Newson, nephew of Ernest Thomas, said he was more focused on exonerating the four — an effort that goes beyond forgiving their alleged crime to declaring them innocent based on evidence, including FBI reports uncovered decades later.
His uncle was never convicted, fleeing Lake County as a white mob descended on the Groveland area with anger and guns after the report of rape by Norma Padgett, a white 17-year-old whose story lacked corroborating evidence.
Thomas was killed in July 1949 by a deputized posse that tracked him into a wooded area in Madison County, 180 miles north.
Padgett testified in two trials more than half a century ago that she and her first husband, Willie Padgett, were in a broken-down car near the Lake County crossroads of Okahumpka, north of Groveland, when the four attacked him, then kidnapped and raped her.
The only corroborating physical evidence was later determined to have been manufactured by sheriff’s deputies.
Prosecutors also never disclosed to defense lawyers that the alleged victim had been examined by a doctor who found no evidence of the sexual assault she alleged.
But Padgett, now 86, opposed the pardons and appeared at the clemency board in a wheelchair flanked by her sons.
“I’m beggin’ y’all not to give them pardon because they done it,” she told the board, which is made up of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet.
The Lake County case has been thoroughly explored in two books, “Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four,” by Gary Corsair, published in 2004, and Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
Campione said she began thinking of a Groveland Four marker on her drive home from the clemency hearing in Tallahassee.
"Acknowledging injustice and abuse of power that occurred in the past is an important part of letting our whole community know we value American ideals of justice, equal treatment under the law and individual rights guaranteed by our Constitution…,” she said.
She said elected commissioners — not the independent board of the Lake County Historical Museum — should take the lead in crafting a Groveland Four memorial to underscore its importance to the county.
The Lake County Historical Museum, which occupies the first floor of the historic courthouse on West Main Street in Tavares, was assailed last year by a coalition of mostly black community leaders during a fiery debate over curator Bob Grenier’s decision to set aside museum space for the 9-foot-tall bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, the last confederate leader to surrender.
A critic blasted the museum’s acknowledgment of the Groveland Four episode in a kiosk as “pathetic.” Others pointed out it doesn’t mention notoriously racist Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who shot and killed Shepherd and critically wounded Irvin while transporting both from state prison to Tavares for a U.S. Supreme Court-mandated retrial.
Pastor Michael Watkins, who organized the coalition’s protests, favors a permanent memorial for the Groveland Four but remains firmly opposed to bringing the Confederate statue to the Tavares museum.
The coalition also persuaded elected leaders in Clermont, Eustis, Groveland, Leesburg, Mount Dora and Tavares to pass resolutions opposed to installing the Confederate general’s statue in a public building maintained by taxpayers.
The Lake County Historical Museum recently added to its display collection with a bust of Alexander Darnes, who was born into slavery in 1840 in St. Augustine. Darnes was Florida’s second black doctor and accompanied Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith into battle. (Stephen Hudak/Orlando Sentinel)
Undaunted, museum officials installed a bust of Alexander Darnes, who was born into slavery in 1840 in the St. Augustine home of the general’s father, Joseph Lee Smith.
An information placard in the protective case shielding Darnes’ bust points out that he would become Florida’s second black doctor.
It also credits the general’s great-granddaughter for loaning the sculpture to the museum and notes: “Dr. Darnes’ fascinating story will be told as part of the new exhibit featuring the Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith statue...”
Watkins said a Groveland Four monument would be a step forward but the general’s statue would be two steps back.
“If it comes here, Lake County is telling you what it believes and where we as African-Americans stand,” he said.
Campione, the commission’s liaison to the museum board, disagreed and said she supports the museum’s acquisition of the statue, which has been displayed since 1922 at the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol as one of two figures representing Florida.
The other statue depicts John Gorrie, considered the father of air-conditioning. The general will be removed from the Capitol in 2020, replaced by African-America educator and civil-rights advocate Mary Jane McLeod Bethune.
Campione said the statue is a Civil War artifact worth preserving “for posterity sake and to do so is not unkind and definitely is not racist...”
She said the statue should be placed in proper context with information about the war, its origins and impact, and the lingering debate over whether the statue belongs in Lake County, to which the slave-holding general had no apparent ties.
Pardon for Groveland Four? Accuser's family says no
Surviving family members of the Groveland Four, African-American men falsely accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County, look to clear their relatives' names.
By the Orlando Sentinel
Nearly 70 years after a young white housewife said she was kidnapped and raped by four black men near the Lake County citrus town of Groveland, Florida is closer than ever to clearing the men’s names.
The case known as the “Groveland Four” will be up for discussion Friday (1/11/2019) at the first Clemency Board meeting of newly sworn-in Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet. A full pardon — the highest act the board can take — would bring the most significant resolution yet for the families of the men, now all deceased, whose lives were ruined by a racist criminal justice system.
Quietly, though, there’s a counter-campaign at work.
Norma Padgett, who was just 17 when she said she was assaulted by the men, is still alive and her family is trying to halt efforts to posthumously vindicate Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Ernest Thomas and Charles Greenlee.
It’s been almost seven decades since she has talked publicly about the night of July 16, 1949,though a member of the Shepherd family claimsPadgett apologized to Samuel Shepherd’s brother during a brief encounter 20 years ago.
Two of her sons said the family is writing letters to DeSantis, insisting that Padgett told the truth when she identified the men as those who kidnapped and raped her.
Padgett and her husband, Willie, said the four men approached them on a dark stretch of road near Okahumpka, where the couple’s car had broken down, and at first helped, but then hit Willie Padgett and took his wallet. The four put Norma Padgett in their car, drove away and raped her in the backseat, she told police.
“My mom don’t lie,” Curtis Upshaw said. “She’s a good Christian lady.”
Upshaw, who grew up in the Groveland area just like his mother, declined reporters’ requests to interview Padgett, who is now 86.
He didn’t offer any counter-point to evidence that suggests the crime never happened. The case was documented in “The Devil in The Grove,” a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Gilbert King and “The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching” by Gary Corsair.
Upshaw conceded wrongs may have been committed by former Lake Sheriff Willis McCall, a central figure in the case and notorious segregationist who died in 1994.
“Whatever Sheriff McCall did is on Sheriff McCall, but they’re still callin’ my mama a liar,” Upshaw said. “Every time they talk about it, they call her a liar. She’s not a liar.”
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall stands at the scene where he shot Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, two of four men charged in the case. Shepherd died; Irvin survived and said McCall and shot the two men without provocation. (FLORIDA STATE ARCHIVES)
Shepherd and Irvin, both 22, who were best friends and from Groveland, were beaten along with Greenlee, 16, in the jail after their arrests. Thomas, 26, a friend of Greenlee’s, was shot and killed by a posse as he fled to the Panhandle days after the alleged crime.
Three years later, McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd as he drove them from the prison in Raiford to Lake County, before they were set to stand trial for a second time after their first convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. McCall claimed the men tried to escape, but Irvin, who survived the shooting, said McCall forced them from the car and shot them point-blank. Greenlee was not included in the second trial because, as the only defendant who received a life sentence rather than death at the first trial, he chose not to appeal.
DeSantis, the Republican former congressman who was sworn in on Tuesday,said just before Christmas that “acts of evil” were committed against the accused “for crimes they did not commit” and promised to take up the case.
All five elected constitutional officers in Lake County, including Sheriff Peyton Grinnell, wrote a letter to DeSantis last month calling for the “exoneration and vindication” of Shepherd, Irvin, Greenlee and Thomas.
Lake Property Appraiser Carey Baker, a former state lawmaker who signed the letter, said he would be “shocked” if the Cabinet fails to take action.
“This particular instance s such a horrible tragedy and blight on Lake County’s past that I think it’s important that we address it,” he said.
Like some other state officials, Baker told the Sentinel he didn’t know Norma Padgett was alive and has family still living in Groveland.
The case for exoneration
It’s unclear whether Padgett or her family played any role in former Gov. Rick Scott’s decision not to grant pardons in the case after Groveland and Lake County governments apologized to the men in 2016 and the Florida House of Representatives apologized in 2017. Documents related to clemency review, including any letters submitted by Norma Padgett’s family or others for or against a pardon, are exempt from Florida’s public records laws.
Family members of the four accused say they have waited long enough for their names to be cleared.
Henrietta Irving, a sister of Irvin and who worked for Padgett’s family in the 1940s, said the men are innocent.
“This woman knows those boys were killed for nothing,” said Irving, 86, of Miami who attended her brother’s trial. “Common sense will know that these boys didn’t rape nobody.”
Vivian Shepherd, niece of Samuel Shepherd, said she expects long-overdue justice to happen soon.
“I believe there’s a time and purpose for everything, and this is it for us,” said Shepherd, a secretary at a Clermont high school. “We’ve been fighting for this and looking to get our names cleared. We can’t bring them [the accused] back and it’s not only them — we feel the pressure and pain as well. … Our names, they have a stain on them and we want them cleared.”
A pardon by the Clemency Board “forgives guilt” from convictions. Technically, only two of the men — Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin — are eligible because Ernest Thomas was killed before he could ever stand trial and Samuel Shepherd was shot dead by McCall after his first conviction was overturned.
Another possibility is an exoneration, which would wipe the criminal charges from the men’s records and officially declare they did not commit the crime — an action that can only be taken by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after a review of the case. An FDLE spokeswoman confirmed such a review is underway but didn’t provide details.
Among the most compelling evidence that the crime never happened:
An FBI report obtained by King, the author of “The Devil in The Grove,” through a Freedom of Information request revealed statements to FBI agents by Norma Padgett that contradicted her trial testimony. One witness, Lawrence Burtoft, was the first to see Padgett after the alleged attack and told prosecutors that she told him she was kidnapped but never mentioned being raped. Burtoft also said she told him she couldn’t identify her attackers. Prosecutors withheld that information from the defense. When Burtoft testified at Irvin’s second trial, Padgett changed her story and said she told him the details about the attack.
A medical report by the doctor who examined Padgett after the alleged crime did not show conclusive evidence that she was raped and was not turned over to the accused men’s defense team.
Charles Greenlee was already in custody of law enforcement when the attack allegedly took place after he was found carrying a pistol without a license, according to King’s research.
Jesse Hunter, the prosecutor in the case, wrote a letter to then-Gov. LeRoy Collins admitting that he had doubts about Walter Irvin’s guilt and urged him to commute his sentence from death to life in prison. Collins commuted the sentence in 1954.
There was also a complicit local press, which was quick to side with McCall’s brand of justice that was often dispensed in the Jim Crow South. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1949 convictions, the unanimous opinion not only assailed Lake County’s mistreatment of the accused but also biased coverage in local newspapers, which included the Sentinel, then known as the Orlando Morning Sentinel. The justices called the trial “but a legal gesture to register a verdict already dictated by the press and the public opinion it generated.”
The NAACP appealed for donations to the legal defense fund with a pamphlet citing “the notorious Groveland, Florida, rape frame-up” and a Morning Sentinel editorial cartoon of four electric chairs under the caption “no compromise.”
Historians and authors have theorized that Padgett and her husband, Willie, whom she divorced in 1958 and died some years later, came up with the story of the rape to explain away a volatile relationship that, on that night, left Norma alone on a dark stretch of road.
King reported in his book that Irvin and Shepherd did stop that night to help the Padgetts with the broken-down car. Shepherd got into a fight with Willie Padgett after he made a racist remark and, eventually, Shepherd and Irvin drove off.
By morning, Norma and Willie Padgett told police the four men robbed him and abducted and raped her.
Whether the story was true or not, the accusation quickly spiraled beyond the control of a 17-year-old girl who was suddenly under the pressure of her community and a powerful sheriff.
Within hours of the claims made by Padgett, a racist mob gathered from across Central Florida and burned and looted the home of Shepherd’s family and indiscriminately fired shots into other homes and businesses, driving many of Groveland’s black families away — some for good. The Ku Klux Klan littered streets with pamphlets and the governor called in the National Guard to help keep the peace.
Lake County was far from alone in its struggle with racial tensions, but the case quickly became intimately linked with Groveland, where at least two of the accused lived, including where the home was set ablaze.
Groveland and Lake officials have long been uncomfortable with the association. Today the Groveland historical museum contains no mention of the case.
The Lake County Historical Museum in Tavares, which once served as the jail and courthouse where the men were beaten and tried, has a photo of three of the men, though McCall, known for his brutality as sheriff, is cropped from the picture.
The tribute wasn’t added until last year.
‘Crying for justice’
For all the uneasiness the case brings for some in Lake County, the families of the accused say their grief can’t be softened without action by the Clemency Board.
Aaron Newson, 57, is a nephew of Ernest Thomas and became intrigued with the case in recent years. He provided a photo of a man he said is his uncle, the first such photo ever published, according to historians who have studied the case.
This photo is said to be of Ernest Thomas, who was shot hundreds of times by an armed posse in the Florida panhandle after he was accused of rape. He married Ruby Lee Jones, but the Sentinel could not confirm if she is the woman pictured. (Courtesy photo)
He said he remembers his mother and grandmother talking about the case.
“My grandmother … she believed along with my mom that he had nothing to do with it,” said Newson, a former corrections officer in New York. “Her thing was that he was in the wrong place, or his name was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
His grandmother owned the Groveland-area bar the Blue Flame, which was shot at by the mob after the rape allegation was made. His family fled Lake County after that.
“When you see your mom and your grandmother crying for justice … even though they’re not here anymore, it’s sweet to finally make sure that they got what they wanted,” he said.
Irving, the sister of Walter Irvin, said she has carried her own guilt over his involvement in the case. He only returned to Groveland after serving in Word War II because she married James Shepherd, who also happened to be the brother of Samuel Shepherd, when she was just 16.
“That was the only reason he came home,” she said while seated on her walker in her Miami living room. “He didn’t want to see me at 16 go down the wrong road. … I had no business getting married. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Henrietta Irving, 86, of Miami is the sister of Walter Irvin and former sister-in-law of Samuel Sheperd, two of the men charged in the case. She hopes Florida will pardon the men. (Susan Stocker / Sun Sentinel)
Soon after, he was arrested and charged with the crime.
Irving remembers visiting her brother on Death Row: His head was shaved and he was crying.
“He said to my mom, ‘Mom, don’t let them put me in a hole,’” she said. “It came very close.”
A last-minute stay spared Irvin’s life, and his sentence was commuted. He was paroled in 1968, after spending nearly 20 years in prison, and lived in Miami near Irving. She helped him find a house and taught him how to ride the city bus. But, she said, he was different from the brother she knew growing up in Groveland.
“I know he was angry when he left this world,” she said. “I just hope and pray he turned that anger loose.”
He died a year after his release, apparently of natural causes, on his first trip back to Groveland.
Vivian Shepherd, niece of Samuel Shepherd, offers another reason for why the state should pardon or exonerate her uncle and the other men.
Padgett, she said, apologized to her father in 1998. Shepherd said her mother told her that Padgett stopped by their home in Clermont not long before James Shepherd died. Back in the 1940s, the Shepherd family farm bordered that of Padgett’s family.
“My dad let her in and they sat on the porch and they spoke,” Vivian Shepherd told the Sentinel of the encounter, which was first reported by King in The Atlantic magazine in 2017. “Dad said that she came to apologize and she said it never happened.”
Asked whether his mother made such an apology, Curtis Upshaw said she did not.
But Vivian Shepherd offers a retort similar to Upshaw’s about the veracity of her mother’s story.