In 1949, four young African American men— Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin—were accused of raping Norma Padgett and assaulting her husband. What happened to these men, soon dubbed the Groveland Four, in the aftermath of a lie is, I would say disgusting, but it’s what happened then, and continues to happen today, to our African American brothers and sisters in America.
After the accusation, Ernest Thomas fled from police, and a posse of 1,000 white men was sent out to capture him, but instead, they found him and shot him over four hundred times while he slept under a tree.
Irvin and Shepherd were arrested shortly after Padgett reported the attack and pol ice officers took the two men to a secluded spot where they were beaten with blackjacks and fists and kicked. They were then driven to the spot where the crime occurred so a deputy could match Shepherd's shoes to those found at the scene; there was not match. Still, the men were taken to Tavares jail, handcuffed to overhead pipes, and beaten and interrogated.
With the capture of Greenlee, just sixteen at the time, the three men were put on trial and convicted by an all-white jury. Greenlee was sentenced to life because of his age, while Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death.
But it didn’t stop there. In 1951, the US Supreme Court overturned the original convictions citing a lack of evidence, and as the local sheriff, Willis McCall, drove Shepherd and Irvin to court for their new trial, he says the two tried to escape; he shot and killed Shepherd and wounded Irvin.
Thurgood Marshall Sr., then with the NAACP, represented Irvin at his second trial, but another all-white jury convicted him, and he was again sentenced to death. He escaped execution in 1954 when Governor LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life with parole.
Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvin died in 1969, one year after he was paroled.
And now, seventy-two years after their arrest and conviction the Groveland Four have been exonerated after Bill Gladson, a local prosecutor, requested a new hearing—coincidentally held in the same Lake County courthouse where the original trials were held—after he and an investigator interviewed Broward Hunter, the grandson of now-deceased Jesse Hunter, the prosecutor of two of the four defendants.
According to Broward Hunter his grandfather knew there was no rape; Hunter says he found letters in his grandfather’s office in 1971, that suggested Sheriff McCall murdered Shepherd and shot Irvin because of the sheriff’s involvement in an illegal gambling operation. Shepherd was believed to be involved with the gambling operation and McCall may have seen a rape case as a way to get Shepherd.
Armed with new information, Gladson presented his case and last week Florida Administrative Judge Heidi Davis officially acquitted Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee, and Walter Irvin.
Four young men, two murdered and two sent to prison, because a white woman lied, and a white sheriff lied, a white judge allowed the lies, and a white jury bought the lies, and yet the men’s families aren’t angry, but are instead hopeful that the case will spark a reexamination of other convictions of Black men and women from the Jim Crow era so those falsely convicted can have their names cleared.
Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew:
“We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn’t get this opportunity. A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will. This country needs to come together.”
But if we really want this country to come together, we need to own its racist past. These four young men were robbed of their lives, literally—Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd—and figuratively—Charles Greenlee, and Walter Irvin—who spent time in prison and the remainder of their lives being known as rapists.
This has to stop, and only by admitting it to ourselves, and I’m talking to white America, can we work to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen.