by Art Levy
Updated 5 yearss ago
On the night of July 16, 1949, according to official accounts, a young couple were driving home from a late-night dance in Lake County in central Florida when their car broke down on a dark road near the town of Groveland.
Willie and Norma Padgett told authorities that four men in a car stopped, presumably to help them. Instead, the Padgetts told authorities, the men beat Willie, leaving him dazed on the side of the road, and drove off with Norma, later raping her.
The Padgetts were white. Their assailants, they said, were black — an accusation that spawned a night of terror in Groveland. One of the chief instigators was Willis V. McCall, Lake County’s sheriff at the time, who is still considered one of Florida’s most brutal and racist lawmen.
Three of the men — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd — were arrested within hours. McCall shot and killed the fourth, Ernest Thomas, while Thomas was handcuffed to another man. McCall explained that Thomas was trying to escape.
Deprived of capturing the suspects itself, a mob formed and took out its anger on Groveland’s African-American community, shooting at homes and burning some down.
While McCall, the town and the courts never questioned the Padgetts’ story, the truth lay elsewhere. The men — later known as the Groveland Four — didn’t beat Willie and didn’t rape Norma. What really happened? One theory indicates Willie lost his temper that night, beat Norma, and the couple concocted the rape story so that Norma’s father wouldn’t learn the truth and beat or kill Willie.
The surviving three members of the Groveland Four, who were defended for a time by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, were convicted and served time in prison. All have since died.
The case is taught in history classes now, which is how University of Florida undergrad Josh Venkataraman learned about it. He read Gilbert King’s non-fiction book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” for an American history class last year.
“I thought it was just another reading assignment,” says Venkataraman, a 21-year-old broadcast telecommunications major. “I had never really been interested in the law, or the justice system for that matter, but the story resonated with me because it happened in Florida, the state where I was born.”
By chance, Venkataraman, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, and his girlfriend were driving from Orlando to Gainesville when he saw a road sign for Groveland.
“I took it as a sign,” he says. “I started thinking about what I could do about this injustice from more than 60 years ago.”
His first impulse was to make a documentary about the case — he wants to get a job in television or film production after he graduates — but he knew another documentary had already been made. There’s a chance a feature film about the case will come later, too — Lions Gate Entertainment owns the rights to Gilbert King’s book.
Instead, Venkataraman started a petition on change.org, asking Gov. Rick Scott to formally exonerate the men. Venkataraman, now a UF senior, is also supporting efforts by state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Orlando, who submitted a bill last session that would posthumously exonerate and apologize to the four men. The bill died in committee, but Thompson says she’ll try again next session.
Meanwhile, Venkataraman hopes to keep collecting signatures on his petition, which will eventually be forwarded to Scott. So far, more than 6,000 people have signed it, but he’s hoping for at least 10,000.
“Having a huge injustice like this taints the name of Florida,” he says. “I know there’s hundreds of cases like this, but I guess this case sticks out to me as one that’s horribly wrong in a state where a lot of horribly wrong things happen. Just fixing one of them, I think, would make a world of difference.”