Honoring The Groveland Four
In In 1949, 17 year-old Norma Padgett accused four black men of raping her
in the town of Groveland. Charles Greenlee was 16 years old at the time and had just arrived in Groveland after traveling from Gainesville. He was arrested at the
train depot and charged with rape. He insisted he was not guilty but was given a life sentence. Walter Irwin was on leave from the military and, after a rushed trial by an all-white jury, was sentenced to death. Samuel Shepherd, a lso o n m ilitary l eave, was tried and sentenced to die. Ernest Thomas hurriedly left Groveland when he learned that the Sheriff, Willis McCall, was looking for him. He made it almost to the Georgia border but was trailed by McCall and a posse that killed him with a hail of bullets.
Thurgood Marshall, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
then a lead attorney for the NAACP won new trials for Irwin and Shepherd who were on
death row at Raiford Prison in Starke, Florida. McCall was driving the men back from
Raiford when he stopped his car and ordered them out. He shot both men and Samuel
Shepherd died on the side of the road in Lake County. Irwin pretended to be dead and
later recounted being shot without provocation by Sheriff McCall who claimed the two
handcuffed and shackled men had tried to attack him.
The accusation made by Norma Padgett would set off a manhunt that would result in a
series of violence against Black residents of Groveland. The men who would come to be
known as the Groveland Four. It would take over seventy years before the state of Florida would formally recognize how the four young men, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, were failed by the criminal justice system.
Family members of the Groveland Four had happier holidays this year due to the exoneration of their relatives. As a State Senator in 2014, at the urging of Groveland Four family
members, I filed legislation to exonerate the four men. I continued to press for their exoneration for seven years. Widespread support of my work was crucial to the
posthumous exoneration which occurred on November 22, 2021. The Florida Legislature in 2017 issued an apology for the racial injustice suffered by the Groveland Four.
The Florida Cabinet voted to pardon the Groveland Four even though a pardon
is generally given to guilty individuals and these men were innocent. Many of
you have been part of the seven-year journey to right the wrongs that occurred
in the case of the Groveland Four. I need your involvement now as we continue
to pursue social and economic justice in the case of the Groveland Four.
Shepherd received a dishonorable discharge from the military due to the rape charges. We
need to right that wrong. The descendants of these men were challenged to realize their full
potential due to the loss of their relatives. I am seeking scholarships through the Florida
Legislature as a means to begin to repair the lives of the descendants of the Groveland Four and will need your help to get legislation passed to make the scholarships a reality
similar to actions taken to benefit individuals in Rosewood and Ocoee.
On November 22, 2021 after the court hearing that resulted in the exoneration of the
Groveland Four, I helped to fill jars with soil collected from the spot where Shepherd was killed which will symbolize his life contributions in exhibits at the Equal Justice Institute Museum founded by Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, Alabama and the Wells’ Built Museum of African American History and Culture which I founded in Orlando, Florida. I helped Groveland Four family members and Pulitzer Prize winning author of Devil in the Grove, Gilbert King, place a wreath on the spot where the FBI indicated Shepherd’s life was taken.
My Holidays were more peaceful with the knowledge that Groveland Four descendants saw their relatives’ names cleared. As we celebrate African American History Month, we must continue to work to have accurate and inclusive history taught in our schools. I filed HB 51 to require instruction on the history of the Holocaust and African American history taught in any school that receives state funding. Religious schools, voucher-funded institutions and charter
schools would be required to provide the instruction as well as traditional public
schools. You can help to make this a reality by contacting legislators and encouraging
them to support HB 51 and we should vote for candidates who support our issues.
During my time in the Legislature, I have worked to increase participation in our
democracy by making it easier for Floridians to vote. I filed and saw passed legislation
which resulted in a change from the absentee ballot system to the ability of all to vote
by mail. I have appreciated your walking along side me in the use of drop boxes and
other efforts to make voting accessible to as many people as possible. The vote by mail
system is in jeopardy and I need you with me in the fight against any efforts to suppress
the vote or restrict voting access. Our celebration of African American History Month
should include a commitment to creating a brighter future through our actions today.
Geraldine F. Thompson
Member of the Florida House of Representatives
Special Feature Brought To You By Rep. Geraldine Thompson