The Story Behind the Groveland Story
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By Gary Corsair
Author of Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four
I'm still at a loss to answer when someone asks why the truth surrounding the infamous Groveland rape case that began in July, 1949 remained hidden for 50 years.
A radio show host once told me, "Voices were crying out from the grave." Perhaps. But why didn't someone hear the cry before I happened upon a yellowed newspaper article about the case in 2000?
As I read about the then-impending trial of three "Negroes" accused of kidnapping and raping a white teenager I couldn't believe I had lived 40 minutes from Groveland, Florida for 12 years and never heard a word about what was obviously a sensational case, Lake County's trial of the century.
I've since learned – after 15 years of research and interviewing a dozen people who lived the story, including Charles Greenlee, one of three men convicted of raping a 17-year-old farm wife – that the silence was by design.
Groveland was Florida's great shame from the moment Norma Padgett cried rape on July 16, 1949 to early 1956 when furor and praise finally died down after Governor LeRoy Collins commutated Walter Irvin's death sentence to life in prison. Civic leaders in Groveland, and the nearby communities of Clermont and Mascotte, focused on restoring their reputations as idyllic, peaceful places to live, work and play. NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg, who represented Greenlee, Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, moved on to frying bigger fish, namely desegregating schools. Greenlee and Irvin resigned themselves to growing old behind bars. Shepherd was long gone, shot to death in November, 1951, by notorious Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall in what he claimed was an escape attempt. The Groveland rape case, front-page news in New York and Chicago in 1949, appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1951, and referenced on the floor of the United Nations after McCall was cleared of wrongdoing in gunning down Shepherd and Irvin, quietly faded from the public's consciousness.
News of Greenlee's parole in 1960, after serving 11 1/2 years in prison, received little press, a brief mention buried inside the few newspapers that carried the report. Greenlee, who was 16 and a few months away from becoming a father when a Lake County jury found him guilty of rape, certainly didn't call attention to his good fortune. And he didn't linger. "I caught a bus out of Florida that night. I was afraid the law was going to show up and say there had been a mistake and take me back to prison," Greenlee told me.
I met Charles Greenlee in 2001 and convinced him to give his first interview since 1951. He did so reluctantly. Charles had done a remarkable job of disappearing and rebuilding his life in Tennessee. He wasn't pleased that I had tracked him down with questions about the events that shattered boyhood dreams, separated him from his daughter, led to his father's stroke, ruined his family's name. The conversation we had in the chilly "office" of his heating and cooling business may well have been the first time he'd discussed Groveland with anybody since prison. I say that after inviting relatives of the defendants to my home and allowing them to peruse my mountains of research. Charles’ brother Wade accepted my offer and dove into FBI reports detailing the brutal beating his brother received from lawmen intent on obtaining confessions. With tears streaming down his face, Wade turned to me and said, "We never knew. He never told us." I believe him.
Charles Greenlee certainly didn't want to revisit painful memories with me, a total stranger. "There's no point in it," Charles told me. "I don't want or need anything. I've built a good life. I'm happy. There's nothing to be gained by bringing all that back up. I know I didn't rape anyone." And then silence ... until my wife said, "Children need to know what happened, they need to know so they can make sure it doesn't happen again." From Charles, a long sigh, a 50-year-old sigh. Raising his head ever so slowly, he fixed watery eyes upon me and said, in a voice, barely above a whisper, 'What do you want to know?'
I left with questions answered and the knowledge I'd been in the presence of an innocent man. A great man. In our van, I cried, overwhelmed by the beauty of the man. He bore no malice, carried no hatred, didn't so much as smile when I told him his tormentor of long ago, Sheriff Willis McCall, had passed away. I thought he'd do cartwheels or damn McCall to hell.
I'm certain Charles Greenlee was at peace when he passed away in 2012.
Five years later, the apology he didn't want or need finally came when the State of Florida exonerated the Groveland defendants. Perhaps someday the State will go the final mile and expunge the criminal records of Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee.
Charles Greenlee once told me that there was nothing to be gained by telling what did and didn't happen near Groveland, Florida on a sticky summer night in 1949. Of course, he felt that way. He'd long given up on the truth coming out. I feel strongly that a great deal can be gained by re-examining the Groveland rape case. And that’s why The Groveland Four is such an important film.