The Groveland Four were four African-American males who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman in the 1940s. On July 16, 1949, in Lake County, Florida, four men, Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin, were accused of raping Norma Padgets, a white lady. During the search for the four men, Thomas was slain by County Sheriff Willis McCall on July 26, 1949, while Irvin, Shepherd, and Greenlee were apprehended for their claimed crimes.
The majority of the lives of the four black men are unknown. Greenlee originally arrived in Lake County, Florida in July 1949, with his wife Ruby Lee Jones. Greenlee was persuaded by Thomas that he could find a job in the area. Shepherd was the son of a local black farmer and a World War II soldier. Irvin served in the military during WWII.
The four men were accused of kidnapping and rapping the 17-year-old girl, as well as attacking her husband, Willie Padgett, on July 16, 1949. Their car broke down after they left the dance, according to her husband, and four Black males stopped to give assistance but instead beat him and kidnapped his wife. The cops began looking for the four males. Greenlee, Shepherd, and Irvin were arrested right away for the purported crime and were cruelly tortured in the Lake County jail. Thomas, on the other hand, managed to elude arrest for a week before being apprehended and slain by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.
As word of the rape spread across Lake County the next day, a mob of over 100 men gathered outside the jail, demanding that Greenlee, Shepherd, and Irvin be released. The three men had been transported to a state penitentiary, but they were still in the Lake County Jail, according to Sheriff McCall. The mob took their rage out on the Groveland Black community, shooting black residents and setting fire to their homes.
Greenlee, Shepherd, and Irvin were on trial at the same time. Despite the fact that medical evidence showed no evidence of Padgett being raped, the three men were found guilty by an all-white jury. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, while Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison.
The three convictions were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court in November 1951, forcing a retrial. Sheriff McCall shot Shepherd and Irvin while they were in custody as the three men were being transported back to Lake County from the state penitentiary. Shepherd died, and Irvin suffered significant injuries. Then, on November 13, 1952, another all-white jury sentenced Irvin to death in a retrial.
Later, Florida Governor LeRoy Collins reduced Irvin’s sentence to life in prison.
Irvin was released from prison in 1968 but died a year later at the age of 39 from a heart attack. Greenlee was eventually released from prison and relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. Greenlee, the Groveland Four’s last surviving member, died on April 18, 2012, at the age of 78. The Greenland Four’s families received an apology from the state of Florida in 2017. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis granted all four men posthumous pardons on January 11, 2019.