Three of the four ‘Groveland Four’ around 1949. (Change.org)
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.
The news that four Negro young men had allegedly raped a White farm wife and robbed her husband in the early hours of July 16, 1949, was spreading like wildfire through Lake County, Fla., and Sheriff Willis McCall was determined to douse the flames before his job was lost in the conflagration.
McCall had retained his stranglehold on power in Lake County by acting as a henchman for the area’s wealthy citrus growers, the powerbrokers of that time.
“The sheriff wasn’t polished, but they growers didn’t need a politician, they needed a bully,” wrote Gary Corsair in his account of the case, Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four.
And Blacks—whom McCall saw as little more than animals—were the sheriff’s favorite targets. By all accounts, he took great pleasure in enforcing anti-vagrancy laws against “uppity” and “lazy” Blacks and strong-arming them into working the citrus groves. And he had no problem using violence to teach them their place.
“It was instilled in most of the Black children that when you saw Willis V. McCall, that was a man you didn’t want to tangle with,” recalled John Griffin, who grew up in Groveland in the ‘50s, in Corsair’s book.
McCall was hell-bent on “solving” the case of alleged assault against Norma and Willie Padgett before a lynch mob took his job into their own hands. Having wrangled two Black suspects—22-year-olds Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin—into custody and beaten a confession out of one, McCall was determined to find two others.
The news that a Negro boy was being held in the Groveland jail presented a possible answer to his prayers. McCall dispatched a deputy to take the Padgetts to view the detainee.
By that time, Charles Greenlee had spent several hours in jail after being arrested for vagrancy at the Edge Mercantile Co. gas station near the train depot sometime after 3 a.m. A deputy fired questions at him—where he was that night, who he was with and something about a car—questions to which the 16-year-old African American had no answers.
Then the Padgetts were brought in to make an identification. In a doubt-filled voice, Norma said, “I think that’s one of them.” Her husband, however, firmly disagreed, saying, “No. Not him. He wasn’t there.” Authorities decided that was a good enough ID, however, and took Greenlee to the County Jail in Tavares. There, Greenlee said, was where he first met Shepherd and Irvin, both of whom were housed in a cell, bleeding profusely from their torture at the hands of authorities.
By late evening, Edge Mercantile probably had one of its best business days, as Whites bought out its gun supply. Bands of would-be vigilantes—many of them friends and relatives of Norma Padgett’s family—roved around the country armed to the teeth.
The men were spurred on by Ku Klux Klanmen, carloads of whom roared into Lake County from neighboring counties, intent on avenging White womanhood.
That Saturday night, the Negroes of Groveland sought refuge behind boarded-up window, under beds and behind dressers as 100 armed White men sped through their streets, shooting guns and shouting threats under the indulgent eye of Sheriff McCall.
Tensions grew even tauter on Sunday as exaggerated and untruthful newspaper reports whipped up the Whites of Lake County into an even greater frenzy. By late afternoon, a lynch mob led by Willie Padgett and his father-in-law Coy Tyson stormed the jail in Tavares, demanding Shepherd and Irvin be handed over. McCall allowed them to search the cells, however, Shepherd and Irvin had been whisked away to the state prison in Raiford for safekeeping—though they said they didn’t escape several beatings on the way.
With the armed rabble dispersed, Sheriff McCall turned his attention to getting a confession out of Greenlee. Deputy James Yates led the Black teen down the basement stairway, much like Shepherd and Irvin. Two men were awaiting them in the shadows. Yates handcuffed Greenlee’s hands to an overhead pipe while another broke a Coca-Cola bottle underneath his feet. Then the beatings began.
With each blow of the rubber hoses, Greelee’s body bounced back and forth, and the glass sliced his feet. As he denied knowing Shepherd and Irvin and assaulting Norma Padgett the abuse intensified. Finally, with blood pouring out his nose and ears and other wounds and tears streaming down his face Greenlee broke and confessed to all the accusations thrown at him.
Meanwhile, Klansmen from as far as Miami and Georgia were pouring into Groveland to join the knots of stern-faced locals loitering about the streets. And as quickly as the KKK hordes swept in, Groveland’s Black residents got out, given refuge by concerned citizens, the Red Cross and Black and White churches in Orlando, Clermont and other nearby cities.
McCall also had the governor mobilize the county’s 75 National Guardsmen to maintain order and protect the few Black families left in Groveland, Mascotte, Bay Lake and Stuckey Still. But the vigilantes, now in the hundreds, easily outnumbered the militia. The governor sent in more National Guardsmen from Tampa, and McCall spread out his manpower to create an impression that the peacekeepers were everywhere. The tactic worked and the KKK-led swarms decided to wait until the militia left.
But by Monday, fueled by McCall’s statements to the press—including an outright lie that Samuel Shepherd had just returned from spending three years in a penitentiary for assault—rabble-rousers drove into Groveland, Bay Lake and Stuckey Hill, a small Negro settlement, shooting up windows and lobbing gas bombs into homes and business establishments. Charlie Mae Shepherd, Sam Shepherd’s mother, and her smaller children hid in the woods while the hate-filled Whites burned down their home. All happened under the approving eye of Sheriff McCall. In fact, he told the media that the night of terror was actually the Negroes’ fault, since God-fearing Whites were simply protecting themselves after hearing stories of gun-toting Blacks planning to march into town.
The NAACP waded into the fray as a spokeswoman called McCall, questioning the treatment of the prisoners and what was being done to protect the area’s Black citizens. And Florida NAACP Executive Secretary Harry T. Moore sent a letter to Gov. Fuller Warren demanding that McCall be held accountable for the unrest.
By that following Saturday, July 23, 1949, things had quieted down, and Sheriff McCall turned his attention toward finding Ernest Thomas, the man Greenlee had identified as being his only contact since he entered Groveland. McCall formed a posse and set out to capture the “fugitive.”
From Gainsville, to Shady Grove to Moseley Hall, a little Black settlement in Madison County, the hunters pursued their prey, bringing in tracker dogs when Thomas proved too wily. It wasn’t until just before noon on the Tuesday that the pursuers finally caught up with Thomas near a swamp.
As the dozing man made to rise, he was stopped by a hail of bullets that struck him several times in the head and riddled his torso. The fourth defiler of Norma Padgett had been caught.
Read more about the Groveland Four and the effort to exonerate them in next week’s AFRO.