Community Voices

Groveland Four pardons came too late for four innocent black men

Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee were three of the four men wrongly accused of rape.
Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee were three of the four men wrongly accused of rape. Florida Memory Project

On Jan. 11, Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, led a vote that pardoned the Groveland Four. Although the pardon came 70 years too late for the four young black men falsely accused of raping a white woman, it was the right thing to do.

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Bea L. Hines

For the families of the men, who were either put in prison, murdered or tortured, the surprise pardons brought a sense of justice. The Groveland Four case was only supposed to be up for discussion before the Florida Clemency Board. The families did not expect to hear a vote, but at the end of the meeting, Gov. DeSantis called for one. And the board unanimously voted to pardon the men.

As a child, I had heard the story of the Groveland Four. I eavesdropped as grownups told the story over and over, again and again. I remember hearing phrases like, “It’s a sin and a shame what they did to those boys,” and “One day that ole sheriff and everybody who helped him will have to stand before the Great Judge.”

Knowing that the guilty parties would one day stand before the Great Judge seemed to bring some comfort. And the conversations would die off. Until somebody heard that a cousin, or an uncle, had recently been lynched in the deep woods of Mississippi. And the wound would be opened again and again.

At such times, the idea of standing before the Great Judge on Judgment Day didn’t seem to be enough punishment for what was happening to blacks in America. It seemed too long a time to wait for justice. Families had lost their sons, brothers, nephews, grandsons. The scars would never heal completely.

Thomas Greenlee, son of Charles Greenlee, one of the men in the Groveland Four, sheds a tear after his father was pardoned by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his cabinet during a clemency board hearing at the Florida State Capitol on Jan. 11. Thomas Greenlee’s son Brian Greenlee, right, also shed tears during the interview. Tori Schneider Tallahassee Democrat via AP

As a child, it seems that I never could get my young mind wrapped around the complete story: of how someone could just outright lie about something that never happened, and then watch as the accused were tortured, killed and sentenced to life in prison.

From the Miami Herald account: The alleged rape took place in 1949. Bit by bit, the full story emerged. What happened to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas and Charles Greenlee was even more horrible than I could imagine. It was an ageless story, and it had happened to young black men ever since they stepped on these shores as slaves.

Shortly after his arrest, Thomas escaped from jail and was slain by a mob of 1,000 two days later. After Thomas’ murder, the other three men were convicted by all-white juries. Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death, and Greenlee, at 17 the youngest of the four, was given a life sentence.

In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered new trials. While Sheriff Willis McCall was taking Shepherd and Irvin to a court hearing, he pulled over and shot the two men. Shepherd died and Irvin pretended to be dead. Later the sheriff said they tried to escape, but Irvin said they were shot while handcuffed to each other, on the ground. Despite this evidence, Irvin was convicted again and given another death sentence.

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Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, one of the four men in the Groveland Four, hugs state Rep. Bobby Dubose, after her father was pardoned by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his cabinet during a clemency board hearing at the Florida State Capitol on Jan. 11. Tori Schneider Tallahassee Democrat via AP

In 1955, then-Gov. Leroy Collins commuted Irvin’s death sentence to life in prison. This act of compassion came at a time when America was still reeling from the shock of the death of Emmit Till, 15, who had been lynched in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and found dead in his car in 1969. Greenlee was paroled in 1962. He died in 2012.

America will never know what the Groveland Four could have contributed to this country. We do know that for whatever reason, God allowed Greenlee to live to tell the story.

As I grew older, the stories of other young black men being lynched for fun by an angry mob of white men would be the topic of grown people’s conversations. They didn’t want the children to hear the stories. We heard anyway and they seemed to be something out of a bad dream.

We heard many stories of how somebody’s uncle or cousin had to be covered with hay or vegetables bound for the market, to make their getaway from a lynch mob.

Today, lynching has taken on a different form. With interracial marriages and young black boys dating young white girls in the open, you’d think lynchings belonged to another generation; another time.

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Surrounded by her sons, Norma Padgett, the accuser of the Groveland Four, hits her fist on the table and pleads with the clemency board not to pardon the Groveland Four during a clemency board hearing at the Florida State Capitol on Jan. 11. Tori Schneider Tallahassee Democrat via AP

Still, lynching happens. Not in the same way it happened to blacks back in the day in the deep South, but it still happens. Today, we lynch with words. We lynch over the internet and on Facebook. Today, lynchings happen when we hate another person because he or she believes in a different religion and do acts of violence against them. Or when someone is from a different culture. Or simply because they don’t look or act like us. At such times, we lynch our brothers and sisters with slanderous words and deeds.

You say lynching is too tough a word? I think not. Especially when I remember the thousands of young people who have been bullied into early graves by hateful words. Or when I remember the young man who was beaten, tied to a post and left to die on a lonely road because he was different or gay. Or the young black man who mistook his new white acquaintances for friends. The new friends later would tie him to the back of a pickup truck and drag him over the rough road until the flesh was torn from his body. To think the men were his new friends was simply deception, and a lynching in its truest form.

These incidents didn’t happen in the 1940s. They happened within the past two decades or so. They tell me that we can never let our guards down. Lynching happens. It happens each time we look the other way when someone is being hurt. It happens when we hate and when we teach our children to hate.

I know that sometimes I seem to be a bit preachy. I don’t mean to be. I just want you to stop and think before acting. I say each of us can work on stopping the lynching.

Zora Neale Hurston Festival

It’s time again for the Zora Neale Hurston Festival, held each year in the late writer’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida.

This year’s festival will be on Feb. 2, and the Booker T. Washington alumni class of 1960 is sponsoring a one-day, round-trip to Eatonville for $70 per person. The cost covers transportation, complimentary refreshment, and festival admission. The cost for children ages 6 and under is $40.

The bus will leave the Golden Glades Terminal (North parking lot) at 6 a.m. and will depart from Eatonville at 5:30 p.m. Don’t forget to bring a portable chair and a light sweater or jacket. No outside food, beverages or ice coolers will be allowed at the festival.

For more information call Cornelia Sands, 305-621-6412; Ramona Exum, 305-625-2961, or Jimmie Knowles, 786-346-2282.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The Historic Hampton House will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday. The day will include viewing the films “The Tree of Knowledge” and “The Hampton House.” The exhibit “One Night In Miami” will be in the museum of the Hampton House.

Other events at the Hampton House will include line dancing with Linda Holloway and the music of Paul Bodie and the Island Boys. The Hampton House is at 4240 NW 27th Ave. in Brownsville. Call 305-638-5800 for more information.

‘Grand Conversations’

“Grand Conversations,” six weeks of higher learning, study and discussion, is now being held at the Miami Beach JCC, 4221 Pine Tree Dr. The next session will be on Wednesday and will feature Rabbi Cheryl Weiner speaking on the topic “Secrets and Souls - Hasidic Stories.”

The sessions are presented by Dr. Miriam Klein Kassenoff, director of the Holocaust Institute, and are free to members. The cost to nonmembers is $20 per day. Call 305-534-3206 for details.