On Friday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a full pardon of Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, and Charles Greenlee, four black men who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman near Groveland, Florida, in 1949.
The pardon was unanimously approved by the Executive Clemency Board two years after the Florida Legislature apologized to the families of the so-called Groveland Four, acknowledging that they were “victims of racial hatred” and “gross injustices” during the era of racial terror and segregation in the American South.
“I really believe in the principles of the constitution and getting a fair shake,” Governor DeSantis said on Friday. “I think the way this was carried out was a miscarriage of justice.”
Miscarriage of Justice
On July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old white woman, Norma Padgett, and her estranged husband reported to police that she had been abducted, driven to a dead-end road, and raped by four black men.
Within hours, according to the Orlando Sentinel, mobs of white residents burned the homes and property of black families in Groveland.
[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.
Groveland residents and best friends Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both 22, were arrested that night and severely beaten in the Groveland jail, along with 16-year-old Charles Greenlee.
Ernest Thomas, 26, “understanding the racial realities of the time and the danger he was in,” fled the county, a state senate resolution explained. A mob of about 1000 men tracked him down days later in nearby swamps and shot him to death “in a hail of gunfire.”
Mr. Thomas’s nephew, Aaron Newson, told the Sentinel that his mother and grandmother knew that he had nothing to do with the alleged crime. After his grandmother’s business was shot at by the mob, the family fled Lake County.
The local press was quick to side with Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who was infamous for using violence to enforce segregation and terrorize the African American community. The Orlando Sentinel acknowledged last week that it had inflamed the public by publishing on the front page a cartoon that showed four empty electric chairs with a title above it that read, “No Compromise!,” just as the grand jury was convening. It quickly returned murder indictments against the men.
The Sentinel apologized on Thursday for its “role in this injustice.”
We’re sorry that the newspaper at the time did between little and nothing to seek the truth. We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative.
Thurgood Marshall and Franklin Williams were among the NAACP lawyers who defended Mr. Shepherd, Mr. Irvin, and Mr. Greenlee at trial. They argued that the men were beat into giving false confessions and that the State had failed to present crucial evidence, such as a medical examination of Norma Padgett.
But an all-white jury convicted the three men, sentencing Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepherd to death and Mr. Greenlee to life in prison.
Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepherd appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which overturned their convictions in 1951. The unanimous opinion cited Lake County’s mistreatment of the defendants and the biased coverage in local papers, writing that the trial had been “but a legal gesture to register a verdict already dictated by the press and the public opinion it generated.”
Soon after the Court’s ruling, Sheriff McCall shot Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepherd while they were handcuffed and in his custody. Mr. Shepherd was killed but Mr. Irvin survived two gunshots to his chest and told the FBI that the sheriff had shot him and Mr. Shepherd in cold blood. Sheriff McCall claimed self-defense and was never charged. He was re-elected five more times.
Mr. Irvin was retried by another all-white jury that convicted him and sentenced him to death a second time.
His sister, Henrietta Irving, told the Sentinel she has felt guilty about what happened to her brother because he had returned to Groveland after serving in World War II because he was worried about her getting married at age 16.
She remembers visiting her brother on death row before his scheduled execution. 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 in a recent interview. “It came very close.”
Mr. Irvin received a last-minute stay of execution, and his sentence was commuted in 1955. He was paroled in 1968 after nearly 20 years in prison and died a year later.
Mr. Greenlee was paroled in 1960. His daughter, Carol Greenlee, told the New York Times on Friday that he rarely spoke about the case, in part because he barely knew what had happened, having suddenly been arrested alongside two men he had never met before.
Gary Corsair, author of “The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching,” met Mr. Greenlee before his death in 2012 at age 78. “I asked him why he didn’t hate, why he didn’t want vindication,” Mr. Corsair told the Times. “He told me that would have made him just like the people who lied on him.”
“I wanted the world to know the truth, and I wanted my daddy’s name cleared,” Ms. Greenlee said on Friday. “It takes a load off of you,” she said of the pardon. “It takes away the guilt of the past.”
The case of the Groveland Four bridges the era of racial terror lynchings and that of Jim Crow segregation and violent white opposition to racial equality.
Thousands of black people were the victims of lynching and racial violence in the United States between 1877 and 1950. EJI has documented 314 lynchings in Florida alone. The lynching of African Americans during this era was a form of racial terrorism intended to intimidate black people and enforce racial hierarchy and segregation.
Deep racial hostility burdened black people with presumptions of guilt, often resulting in accusations that were unfounded and unreliable. Mere suggestions of black-on-white violence could provoke mob violence. The deep racial hostility permeating Southern society often focused suspicion on black communities after a crime was discovered, whether or not there was evidence to support that suspicion, and accusations against black people were rarely subjected to serious scrutiny.
Narratives of crime reported in the white press perpetuated the deadly stereotype of African American men as threats to white womanhood and white communities. The mere accusation of rape, even without an identification by the alleged victim, often aroused a mob and resulted in lynching. Almost 25 percent of documented racial terror lynchings were sparked by charges of sexual assault and met with deadly violence before the legal system could or would act.
Veterans like Mr. Irvin were especially targeted for mistreatment, violence, and murder during the lynching era due to their race and military experience. And like Mr. Thomas’s family, millions of black people fled the South in response to racial terror and violence and could never return, which deepened the anguish and pain of lynching.
In response to demands for equal rights in the 1950s and 60s, millions of white Americans made clear their determined, unwavering, and committed opposition to racial equality, integration, and civil rights. This entrenched commitment to white supremacy inspired an often violent rejection of racial justice that is frequently overlooked.
It was during this era that law enforcement agencies aligned themselves with opponents of racial equality and became the face of violent resistance to integration and voting rights. The struggle for racial justice was blocked by uniformed police who were hostile and often violent in their opposition to peaceful efforts for equality.
Sheriff McCall was a staunch segregationist known for his brutality in enforcing segregation. Like most of the elected officials, journalists, and white leaders who espoused virulently racist ideologies in this era, he was not banished or shamed.
In fact, he continued his reign of terror as Lake County Sheriff until 1972, when an intellectually disabled black man was kicked to death in his jail. With the support of many local whites, McCall was acquitted by an all-white jury, and lost a bid for an eighth term as sheriff by a slim margin. He died in 1994 at the age of 84 after writing a memoir in which he defended his commitment to segregation and the morality of his methods.
The Legacy of Racial Injustice
“For seventy years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit,” Governor DeSantis said in a statement. “As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing. I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The Perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this.”
Family members of the four men have suffered mostly in silence for decades. Vivian Shepherd, Mr. Shepherd’s niece, told the New York Times in 2017 that a sense of shame permeated her life. “I used to feel a certain way growing up. It’s like embarrassment,” she said.
After reading Mr. Corsair’s book about the case, she learned that her father and her grandparents — whose home was destroyed by angry mobs after Ms. Padgett’s accusations were reported — had suffered more than she ever realized. “They lost a brother, a son; they lost their house, their land and everything,” she said.
Obtaining the pardon feels like a weight has been lifted, Carol Greenlee told the Sentinel last week. “It’s the dignity of being a Greenlee restored, it’s the shame taken away, it’s being let out of prison from a lie that has plagued our family for all these years.”