By Frederick H. Lowe
A memorial honoring four black men who were arrested for raping a white woman, including two murdered by police before or shortly after the trial, was unveiled recently in front of the Lake County, Florida, Historical Museum in Tavares.
The men, known as the Groveland Four, named for the town Groveland, Florida, were Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall led a posse of 1,000 armed men who murdered Thomas before he had been charged with rape. McCall also murdered Irvin while driving him to prison from the Lake County, Florida, jail.
Police charged three of the four men with raping Norma Padgett in 1949. They were convicted and either sentenced to death or to life in prison for the alleged rape, based solely on Padgett’s word, although a physical examination by a doctor proved she had not been raped.
Irvin refused to confess to the crime.
Thomas escaped, but he was hunted down by a posse of more than 1,000 men who shot him 400 times as he slept under a tree. He had not yet been charged with a crime.
In 1951, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall was transporting Irvin and Shepherd from Raiford State Prison back to the Lake County jail in Tavares when he claimed to have a flat tire.
Alone with the two handcuffed prisoners, McCall drove down a dirt road supposedly to inspect one of the car’s tires, outside Umatilla, Florida, north of Tavares. He said Shepherd asked to urinate, and the two prisoners, cuffed together, got out of the car.
McCall claimed the men attempted to escape by attacking him. He shot them both three times. Shepherd, a World War 2 veteran, was killed, but Irvin. also veteran, pretended he was dead and survived. Both men were proud to wear their uniforms.
Black men falsely accused of rape by white women has been commonplace in the nation’s history.
In another case, Irene Tuskin, 19, claimed she had been raped by three black men on June 15, 1920 in Duluth, Minnesota. A physician examined Tuskin, determining she had not been raped.
A white mob knocked the sheriff out of the way, dragged the men from the jail and lynched Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. Their murders are detailed in the 1979 book “The Lynchings in Duluth.”
Later, Duluth erected a monument to honor the three men after determining they were innocent and that Tuskin had lied.
The ceremony celebrating the unveiling of the monument honoring the Groveland Four was attended by Florida Governor DeSantis and family members of the Groveland Four.
DeSantis called the conviction of the four a “miscarriage of justice” and that a pardon “brought justice to the historical record.”
The families of the four men now are seeking a full exoneration by the state, which would declare they never raped Pagett, who was 17 at the time. She is now 80.
Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, helped Irvin and win a re-trials, following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The entire set of events is told in the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Devil in the Grove,” by Gilbert King. The complete title is “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.”
Greenlee died in 2012 having been paroled in 1962. Irvin was paroled in 1968. He was found dead in 1969 inside his parked car.
Three of the four men were very young. Greenlee was 16. Irvin was 22. Shepherd also was 22. Thomas’ birthdate is not known.