State House apologizes for abuse, racism

School and law enforcement atrocities cited

FROM WIRE AND STAFF REPORTS

TALLAHASSEE – On Tuesday, the Florida House of Representatives recognized and apologized for the state government’s collaboration and involvement in two notorious incidents in Florida’s recent history.

In 1951, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, a notorious racist, shot Samuel Shepherd and Walter Lee Irvin while transporting them from Raiford to Lake County. McCall said they attacked him. Shepherd was killed; Irvin survived, and accused McCall of forcing them from the vehicle and shooting them.
(STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA/FLORIDA MEMORY)

Torture at boys school
With 17 former students of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys watching in the public galleries, the state House formally apologized for abuse suffered by hundreds of boys at the now-closed reform school.

“We stand here in solidarity, saying we’re sorry,” said Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, a sponsor of the resolution (HR 1335) co-sponsored by 116 members of the House.

The resolution acknowledged that treatment of boys sent to Dozier and a related facility in Okeechobee was cruel, unjust and “a violation of human decency.” More than 500 former students have alleged brutal beatings, mental abuse and sexual abuse at the Dozier school, which was closed in 2011 after 111 years of operation in Marianna.

‘Genuine thing’
“That was a genuine thing that was heartfelt by all of the White House boys,” said Charles Fudge, a 69-year-old Homosassa resident who wiped away tears during the House debate and vote. “It means an awful lot for them to acknowledge the abuse that went on.”

Fudge, who was sent to Dozier with three of his brothers in the early 1960s, is part of the “White House Boys” group, which is named after a facility at the school where boys were beaten and abused.

It was testimony and information-gathering by the White House boys that led to a state investigation of Dozier, the exhumation by University of South Florida researchers of 55 graves at the facility and the appointment of a state task force that completed its work last year.

Monuments, reburials
In a related move Tuesday, the House unanimously passed a bill (HB 7115) that would authorize the creation of monuments in Tallahassee and in Jackson County, which includes Marianna, to commemorate the Dozier and Okeechobee victims.

In addition to the two memorials, the bill would require the reburial of victims of a 1914 dormitory fire at Dozier in the Boot Hill cemetery at the former Jackson County school. It also would require the burial of unidentified Dozier victims in Tallahassee.

The legislation, which still needs Senate approval, would direct the state Department of Environmental Protection to use ground-penetrating radar to explore the 1,400-acre Dozier site for additional unmarked graves.

The Dozier property may eventually be turned over to Jackson County, where officials see the property as a key to the community’s future economic development, or it could be sold as surplus land by the state. But the House legislation says even if the land is eventually transferred, deed restrictions will protect the Boot Hill cemetery and the White House.

A Senate resolution (SR 1440) apologizing for the abuse and beatings at Dozier and Okeechobee is pending in the Rules Committee.

‘Groveland Four’
Charles Greenlee was one of four Black men accused of raping a White woman near Groveland in 1949, one of two men to survive manhunts and discredited trials that followed, and the only one to live long after his time in prison had ended.

The House voted to formally apologize for the prosecution and persecution of the “Groveland Four” – Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas. Their story, long neglected, is now a step away from being formally recognized by the Legislature.

The Senate is expected to adopt the apology soon. The legislation would also ask Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to quickly consider posthumous pardons for the men.

“Justice was delayed, but it was never denied,” said Greenlee’s son Thomas, who was born 15 years after the alleged rape. “It was bound to come.”

The incident began in 1949, when a 17-year-old woman and her husband claimed that the four men raped her near Groveland in Lake County (near the Orlando area). Three of the men were tortured until two confessed to the crime.

Killing and convictions
Thomas, who initially escaped, was killed in Madison County after a manhunt. The other three men were convicted, with Greenlee receiving a life sentence and Irvin and Shepherd condemned to death.

An appeal of Irvin and Shepherd’s convictions, spearheaded by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, prompted the high court to overturn the verdict in 1951. Irvin and Shepherd were shot several months later, purportedly in self-defense, by Sheriff Willis McCall and a deputy.

Shepherd was killed.

After Irvin was convicted and sentenced to death again, Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died two years later. Greenlee, who was paroled in 1962, died in 2012.

‘Can’t be fixed’
Even those who sponsored the apology acknowledged that it could only go so far.

“The memories can’t be erased, the pain they’ve endured can’t be fixed, but today we have an opportunity to provide closure to these families in the form of an apology,” said Rep. Bobby DuBose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the House proposal (HCR 631).

Gilbert King – whose book about the case, “Devil in the Grove,” won the Pulitzer Prize – said the apology “marks a willingness to recognize and confront a grave injustice.”

“Sadly, for the families of the Groveland boys, this bill cannot alter the tragic course of history,” King said. “But it does show how we as Americans can respond to our past, to acknowledge a shameful part of our history and to confront it rather than sweeping it under the rug and moving on without conversation.”

Lloyd Dunkelberger and Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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