Efforts to vindicate the innocent men victimized in one of Florida’s most notorious racial atrocities are picking up steam.
BY ZENITHA PRINCE
THE AFRO AMERICAN
SPECIAL TO THE TRICE EDNEY NEWSWIRE
GROVELAND – As a child growing up in Florida, Carolyn Greenlee felt there was a black mark against her last name.
The now-66-year-old Nashville consultant was not even born back in 1949 when her father, Charles Greenlee, and men dubbed the “Groveland Four” were arrested, tortured, tried and sentenced for the alleged rape of then-17-year-old Norma Padgett in one of Florida’s greatest miscarriages of justice.
Greenlee, 16 at the time, was relatively lucky. He was sentenced to life in prison, and paroled after 12 years.
His friend Ernest Thomas was hunted down and killed by a posse.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, a notoriously violent racist, summarily executed World War II veteran Samuel Shepherd on the way to a new trial.
Shepherd’s friend Walter Irvin was shot multiple times and escaped death at the sheriff’s hands, only to be re-sentenced to death by an all-White jury. Irvin’s sentence was later commuted and he was paroled in 1968.
The young men’s surviving families remained haunted by the events.
Greenlee was 11 when her father was paroled. The self-taught electrician started his own company and spent his life in quiet service to others – hiring people no one else would take, such as ex-felons – and to his family. He died in 2012.
“I was deprived of having a father and deprived of him being there for some of the important moments of my life,” Greenlee recalled. “I grew up angry because I was told he was put in prison because of something he did not do. I grew up with a resentment for White folk.”
Her father told her she could not afford to live a life fueled by hate. He asked her not to pursue the case while he was alive because he did not want to relive it.
“Hate destroys, he told me. It does not heal; it does not help. He forgave, he said, because he had children he had to help grow and he couldn’t do that if he was hate-filled,” Greenlee recalled. “He taught me to get rid of that anger that was inside me.”
After her father’s death, Greenlee and other family members wrote Gov. Rick Scott in September 2012 asking for the Groveland Four’s exoneration. The request included FBI documents showing that there was no physical evidence that Norma Padgett had been gang-raped by four men.
Scott’s office responded, but offered no apology and referred the family to the state attorney general’s office.
By early 2015, all efforts to exonerate the men had fallen flat, including legislation introduced by Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando). That’s when, Greenlee said, she received a call from University of Florida senior Josh Venkataraman asking permission to start a Change.org petition seeking exoneration of her father and the other accused men.
Greenlee said something just “clicked” with Venkataraman.
“I had already exhausted every avenue that I had and then God sent me Josh out of the blue,” Greenlee said. “I was floored.”
History became real
Venkataraman, a TV and film production major, said he read about the Groveland case in a history class. But, it wasn’t until he saw a Groveland road sign on his way back to school that the history lesson became real.
In the first six months of its posting, the petition garnered only a couple hundred signatures. Then Venkataraman contacted Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and asked for his help. In September 2015, Pitts wrote the opinion piece, “The Groveland Four: justice denied for 66 years … and counting.”
“I started getting signatures from all over the country and from other countries as well,” he said.
Since the publication of Pitts’ column, momentum seems to have built. On Feb. 16, the city of Groveland issued a proclamation asking Gov. Scott to exonerate the Groveland Four and on March 15, Lake County issued a similar proclamation.
“For myself and for the city of Groveland, we do offer our sincere apologies,” Mayor Tim Loucks told relatives of the Groveland Four in making the proclamation.
“The biggest goal of the city of Groveland and south Lake County is to allow this to be healed. It’s been ignored for 67 years. There comes a time when you can’t ignore, should not ignore anything like this.
“While we could not say with any certainty what happened [to Norma Padgett], we know that the trial itself was not fair and that they should not have even been tried. The evidence they were convicted on was clearly not enough and we felt that the entire matter was racially motivated,” said Loucks.
He added, “This is the only thing the rest of the council and I felt we can do to bring healing to their remaining family members.”
Loucks said the city plans to lobby for the 2017 passage of Sen. Thompson’s legislation, which was reintroduced this session but never got out of committee.
Greenlee said the recent developments have breathed new life into her quest.
“I have one mission for the rest of my life and that is to get my father exonerated. And it’s going to happen,” she said. “Truth will prevail.”