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. 

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Three of the four ‘Groveland Four’ around 1949. (Photo/Change.org)

Accusation and Arrest

July 15, 1949, was a typical Friday night—that day of the week when young, sometimes old, Floridians braced the sweltering heat for a chance at a good time.

Norma Padgett, a “slight and plain” 17-year-old with shoulder-length brunette hair, decided to take that chance. Married at 16, the White teenager had, within less than a year, separated from her husband, Willie Padgett, a “scrawny” fellow only a few years older than his wife. Still, she agreed to accompany her estranged husband to a dance in  Clermont, Fla., a city about 26 miles away from their home in Bay Lake, a community comprising a smattering of loosely associated farm shacks situated in Lake County.

At about 1 a.m. the pair left the party, Mr. Padgett having consumed a bottle of whiskey he had bought on the way. Norma, who hadn’t eaten supper, urged William to drive them to Okahumpka, a town that would take them through Groveland in the opposite direction to their home, to purchase sandwiches. His 1940 Packard, however, stalled. But, with some help from friends they got it started and sped off.

A few miles past Groveland, the pair stopped, arguing about the decision. They decided to return to Bay Lake, but, as William attempted to turn the car around, the car stalled again. It was about 1:45 a.m. July 16.

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A few vehicles passed but none stopped to offer help. That is, until four Negroes in a car approaching from the north stopped alongside the pair. According to the Padgetts, the Black boys pushed the car until it was almost completely on the road, then stopped and began whispering. Becoming suspicious, Mr. Padgett approached the group to see what they were conferring about, and chatted with them for 15 minutes—though he later said he could not remember what they talked about. Then, according to a St. Petersburg Times account, Padgett picked up a heavy stick from the ground and lit into the four boys. For the next 15 minutes, the “scrawny” Padgett managed to get some licks in before he was overpowered, knocked out and deposited in the nearby bushes.

That’s when the men, supposedly, put Norma into their car and drove for 25 minutes to a dead-end side road just inside Lake County. As she told it, the boys pointed a pistol at her and forced her to remove her underpants. The Black boys then allegedly took turns, switching out places to rape her in the same position in the constricted confines of the small vehicle’s back seat. After the alleged assault, she said, they drove off toward Center Hill and left her in some nearby woods. She stayed there until daybreak before walking 6 miles to Okahumpka. There, she entered a diner owned by Larry Burtoft and told him her harrowing tale. He borrowed his father’s car and drove her to the spot where her husband’s body had been dumped.

Meanwhile, William had come out of his stupor around 2:30 a.m. With the help of a passing motorist, he told authorities, he got the car started and set out north—though his attackers had supposedly driven south.  At Dean’s Service Station in Leesburg, the 17-year-old attendant Curtis Howard phoned authorities, then the pair set out to look for Padgett’s missing wife. They eventually came upon Norma and Burtoft at the place where the initial altercation occurred. The husband and wife hugged, then left together to report the night’s incidents to the authorities.

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That same night, Charles Greelee had fallen asleep at a Groveland packing shed while waiting for his friend Ernest Thomas. Until that fateful night, Greenlee, 16, had lived with his family in Sante Fe—a small town north of Gainsville, Fla. After the deaths of his two sisters, ages 2 and 4, in separate accidents on a nearby train track, a dark cloud had settled over the Greenlee household. Seeking to escape that cloud, Greelee left home to find work in Gainsville. There, he met Thomas, who convinced him to hitchhike to Groveland, where the orange groves promised employment and where Thomas’ mother owned a juke joint, the Blue Flame.

On July 15, the pair hopped off a truck and landed in Groveland around 5:30 p.m. Thomas wanted to go to his mother’s place, but Greenlee didn’t want to be seen in his torn, dirty clothes. Promising to return with clean clothes, Thomas left Greenlee at a packing shed near a railroad siding. Hours later Thomas returned in his father’s Pontiac sans clothing, but offered the younger teen some cookies and soda water. Greenlee saw an old revolver in the Pontiac and asked to keep it. Thomas gave him the firearm and left.

At around 3 a.m. Greenlee awoke to the darkness. He walked about 100 yards to a nearby gas station, seeking out a drink of water, when night watchman Harry McDonald found him. McDonald—and later, Groveland’s lone police officer, George Mays—seemed inclined to let Greenlee go, even with the broken down firearm in his possession, but the officer decided to detain him in the Groveland jail until they could determine no crimes had been committed.

Earlier that night, sometime after 9 p.m. while Greenlee still slept, Thomas was at a local bar when he encountered longtime friends Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin. Thomas had met Shepherd a weeks before while working in the orange groves. He stopped the pair and accused Shepherd of having interest in a girl he had been pursuing. Shepherd denied the allegation, however, citing his intentions of marrying his friend’s sister Louise Irvin, whom he had taken to the movies earlier that night.  Thomas seemed little assuaged and seemed ready for a lengthy argument, so Shepherd and Irvin left.

Earlier, the duo—childhood friends who seemingly did everything, including stints in the Army unit, together—had decided to drive up to Orlando to take in some Friday night entertainment, so they set out on their journey. Seven miles outside Groveland, near Clermont, their car began to skip. They went into Clermont, located Night Policeman San Doto, who handled after-hours gasoline sales, and told him they would be back for petrol in another car. The pair returned to Groveland, borrowed Shepherd’s brother James’ car—a 1942 Mercury sedan—and returned to Clermont, where they filled up with gas and resumed their journey.

Shepherd and Irvin drove through Orlando to Eatonville, a nearby Black enclave, and went to Club Eaton, where they drank soft drinks and ate French fries. From there, they drove to Altamonte Springs, where they patronized Club 436. There, they shared a quart of beer and played music on the jukebox.

The men say they then drove back to Groveland via Apopka, Winter Garden, Oakland and Clermont—nowhere near the area north of Groveland where the alleged rape occurred. Shepherd dropped Irvin off and went to bed.

The next morning, unbeknownst to the four Black young men, the Padgetts had shared their woeful tale and the authorities were on the hunt for the alleged “Nigger rapists.’

Shepherd’s brother, James asked him to accompany him and his wife into town, according to a definitive account by the St. Petersburg Times’ Norman Bunim, who did a three-part series on the trial in 1950. While his sister-in-law spent time at the hairdresser’s, Shepherd went over to the Irvin house. As James Shepherd waited on his wife, Deputy Sheriff James Yates and other officers approached him and said his car had been identified as being involved in a crime. On information from James Shepherd about who had had possession of the car, the officers went to the Irvin home and arrested Samuel and Walter.

In another account Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four, writer Gary Corsair offers a slightly different version of events. Deputy Leroy Campbell, he wrote, found Shepherd in the dark-colored 1942 Mercury—which vaguely fit the description of the car William Padgett described. The deputies proceeded to beat Shepherd, demanding the names of his “accomplices.”

“Sam was bloodied up pretty good before he realized the wisdom of talking,” Corsair recounted. And, he offered Irvin’s name, swearing that he was his only companion the night before.

Soon after, three cars of officers pulled into the Irvins’ yard, while Walter was getting ready for work. He assured his mother he had not done anything wrong before being seized by the deputies and shoved into the backseat of a vehicle near his already tenderized friend.

Several minutes into the journey, the lawmen pulled into a secluded spot and set out to obtain a confession. With fists, feet, billy clubs and blackjacks the officers bludgeoned the 22-year-old World War II veterans until they were a “pitiful sight,” Corsair wrote. Still, the Black men protested their innocence.

The denials only multiplied the deputies’ fury and they lit into the pair with even more ferocity before taking them to the County Jail, located in the courthouse in Tavares, the Lake County seat.

There, the tormentors regrouped before leading the men one-by-one down to the courthouse’s dank basement. Walter was taken first. The deputies grabbed his arms and suspended him in the air, handcuffing his hands to an overhead water pipe. The excruciating pain at his wrists and arm sockets were but a backdrop to the torture that came next. Armed with rubber hoses and billy clubs, the deputies beat the 22-year-old suspect with focused savagery. His continued refusal to confess to rape earned the deputies’ amazement but also fuelled their ire. They began to take turns kicking his exposed groin and aimed their blows at his face until he passed out.

When Shepherd saw the mutilated body of his friend, he feared Walter he was dead. And then it was his turn to face the torture. This time, the deputies’ determined efforts bore fruit—Samuel confessed, convinced it was the only way to stay alive.

Read more about the Groveland Four—their arrest, trial and eventual acquittal—in next week’s AFRO.