The families of four black men accused of rape in 1949 will receive an apology from the state of Florida, close to 70 years after their loved ones were imprisoned and, in two cases, killed.
The Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a resolution to apologize to the four families, recognizing that the men were convicted on shaky evidence during the Jim Crowe era, and with the involvement of a notoriously racist sheriff.
“SCR 920 acknowledges the grave injustice perpetrated against Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, the men who came to be known as the ‘Groveland Four.’ Despite a lack of evidence or credible witnesses, the four men were charged with rape,” the resolution reads.
It’s far too little and decades too late. But it’s some small relief while the families of the men wait for them to be exonerated, another measure included in the bill, which has a counterpart pending in the state senate and will be sent to Governor Rick Scott for signing.
“It would be a tremendous burden lifted off our families’ shoulders. It’s a dark cloud that needs to be cleared,” Carole Greenlee, one of the men’s daughters, told the Daily Commercial. “For years, your father is locked up in prison growing up and you’re ashamed. At that time, it was a bad thing and going forward, I don’t want his nieces and nephews left with that same feeling about their family legacy for something that was not even true.”
In the early morning hours of July 16, 1949, a white couple, Norma and Willie Padgett, claimed that Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, and Ernest Thomas assaulted Willie and raped Norma after their car broke down on a rural road in Groveland, FL.
What followed was a night of violence in Groveland, with mobs of white citizens demanding that the four men be punished immediately, and turning their rage on the black citizens of the area, destroying property and shooting at black families in their homes. Ernest Thomas, who fled, was chased 200 miles by a mob who killed him on the spot when they found him.
An all-white jury was quick to find the three remaining men guilty, though there was evidence that two were in Orlando and the other was 19 miles away at the time of the alleged incident.
Shepherd and Irvin were veterans, recently returned from serving during the war. Greenlee was just 16 years old. The two veterans were sentenced to death and Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison.
After a series of appeals, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial for Irvin and Shepherd. Sheriff Willis V. McCall, known for his racist views, was tasked with bringing them back to Lake County for their new trial. On the way, he pulled over and shot them, later claiming he was assaulted. From the Miami Herald:
Shepherd died on the spot. Irvin survived by pretending to be dead. He later told investigators the sheriff shot them in cold blood. Relying on evidence the FBI later said was manufactured by law enforcement, Irvin was convicted and sentenced to death again.
Former Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence and Irvin was paroled in 1968. Two years later he was found dead in his car while visiting Lake County during a funeral. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.
“This resolution is us simply saying ‘We’re sorry’ understanding that we will never know nor be able to make up for the pain we have caused,” Representative Bobby DuBose, a sponsor of the bill, said yesterday.