With the recent release of the documentary about the Central Park Five, more people are talking about the case. I’ve previously written about my personal reflections on the case as a native New Yorker and as a young woman at the time.
Decades before the Central Park Five, four young black men were falsely accused of raping a 17 year old white woman in Florida. The story is powerfully recounted in a book that I have referenced a couple of times on this blog titled “Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King.
Norma Lee Padgett got on the witness stand and pointed her finger at the three young black men seated across from her:
“…the nigger Shepherd, the nigger Irvin…the nigger Greenlee.”
Padgett was accusing these young men of raping her. With her words, she set in motion a massive injustice that would bring Thurgood Marshall to a small Florida town called Groveland in 1949.
Marshall braved constant death threats and his own personal demons to see “justice done” in the case of the “Groveland Boys.” Local NAACP leader Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette would lose their lives in a KKK bombing on Christmas Day in 1951 in large part because of their advocacy in the Groveland Four case.
When Marshall arrived in Lake County, Florida in 1949, Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin were facing certain death for allegedly raping Norma Padgett. Padgett, who was separated from her husband, accused the men of raping her after a dance that she had attended with her husband. Two of the suspects (Shepherd & Irvin who were war veterans) had in fact briefly come upon Norma and her estranged husband Willie Padgett on the side of the road where their car had broken down. They had an altercation with Willie who had disrespected them as they had offered their assistance & were unable to get the car moving again. The other two accused men (Thomas and Greenlee) had never met the Padgetts and in fact were not even in the vicinity at the time of the alleged rape.
Nothing about the story that Norma Padgett told added up. One of the first people she spoke with in the early morning was not told that she was raped by 4 black men. She was seen by another witness getting out of the car of a white man on the morning after she had supposedly been raped. It was clear that her story was a preposterous and incredible one.
Sheriff Willis McCall who is one of the most infamous cops of the Civil Rights era plays a critical role in this story. He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and known for his ruthless treatment of “suspects.” When Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin were arrested, a lynch mob formed at the jail & demanded that they be handed over to them to administer “justice.” Ernest Thomas, a fourth suspect, fled the county but was found by a posse in the swamps; he was shot and killed on sight.
Sheriff McCall garnered a lot of positive national attention when he refused to hand the suspects over to the mob. Here’s how Time Magazine described the events in August 1949:
Sullen, glint-eyed men collected in murmuring knots in the dusty, farm-town streets. Soon, the small angry knots had. become one 125-man mob pulling up at the Tavares courthouse in a 20-car caravan. Most of the mob stayed behind while its leaders walked up the steps to talk with big, easygoing Sheriff Willis McCall. “Willis,” said one,”we want them niggers.”
The sheriff let himself down on the steps and talked softly. “You know that when you elected me, I was sworn to uphold the law,” he said. “And I have to protect my prisoners.” Anyway, he added, the prisoners had been rushed off to another jail for safekeeping. (A third suspect was in the jail at the time, but was sneaked off later.)
Grumbling, the mob rode off, and almost broke up. Just for the hell of it, though, in the little fanning town of Groveland, 65 miles from Tampa and not far from Willie and Norma Padgett’s house, the men with shotguns pumped 15 loads of buckshot into a Negro-owned juke joint. Then they looked around for more Negroes—but the 400 residents of Groveland’s Negro district had been carted to safety by white citizens who feared what was coming.
Calm, determined Sheriff McCall put in a hurry call to Governor Fuller Warren that brought 78 National Guardsmen to the scene. Off and on for three days, small mobs, sprinkled now with strangers from other counties, cruised menacingly in cars, or shuffled through the small-town streets, but did no damage. Then, all of a sudden, they were roused again. A hundred shouting whites with rifles and pistols roared into tiny Mascotte in trucks, forced Guardsmen and police to withdraw and took over the community for the night.
At Stuckey’s Still, a bedraggled Negro home site three miles from Groveland, the band poured shots into one house (someone thought it belonged to the father of one of the rape suspects) and started after more. Sheriff’s men and highway police stopped them with tear-gas grenades. A few miles away, whites tossing kerosene-filled bottles burned three Negro homes to the ground.
What Time Magazine didn’t report and probably didn’t know was that McCall’s deputies severely beat and tortured the other three alleged suspects in the jail basement for several hours. Shepherd and Irvin confessed in order to stop the beatings. They actually encouraged the terrorizing of black community residents by the KKK. They fabricated and planted evidence to frame the young men. Sheriff McCall was actually a racist sadist.
There was a quick trial that resulted in a guilty verdict for all three surviving defendants. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death and Greenlee sentenced to life in prison. Thurgood Marshall appealed the initial guilty verdict for Shepherd and Irvin all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the convictions in Shepherd v. Florida in 1951.
Yet there was no happily ever after in this story. Driving Shepherd and Irvin back to the prison after the Supreme Court verdict, McCall and his deputy shot both men right outside of town. Shepherd died instantly. Irvin survived to testify against McCall. McCall was cleared of wrongdoing and continued to pursue & harass Irvin even after the Florida governor pardoned him in 1955. McCall served as sheriff until 1972.
The FBI recently unsealed the files from the case. A major revelation is that a doctor who examined Norma Padgett found no signs of sexual assault. The new details about the case have prompted the families of three of the four men who were falsely accused to ask the state of Florida to exonerate them and to apologize.