Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America – Gilbert King

“the nigger Shepherd…the nigger Irvin…the nigger Greenlee…” – Norma Lee Padgett confirmed, pointing to each defendant accused of her rape.

Of course she was lying.

There were actually 4 defendants, the other was “rightfully killed,” during his pursuit.  And of these final 3; two received the death penalty and the third was “killed trying to escape,” while being transferred to another jail…

This was in 1949, in Florida.  The sheriff, who killed the defendant, was a notorious racist (in 1972 he was acquitted of murdering a jailed Black man), arrogant and a supporter of the KKK.  Until he was voted out of his role, he kept a ‘whites only’ sign in his sheriff office – up until 1973.

So what happened?  Shepherd and Irvin noticed Norma and her husband Willie’s car broken down on the side of the road.  They stopped and offered assistance.  Willie sat in the driver’s seat to steer while Shepherd and Irvin pushed. Their efforts were fruitless, the car wouldn’t budge, it was stuck in some sand, so tired, they stopped.  Annoyed, Willie yelled at them to keep pushin’ and, not liking the tone, Shepherd stopped.  Trying to ease the incoming tension, Norma offered and gave Shepherd and Irvin a swig of the whiskey she had, they drank it and when it was passed back to Willie, who was drunk, he stated, “I aint drinking after no niggers!”  Having had enough of the insults, Shepherd grabbed Willie, punched him and left him lying in the ditch.

What took place next was horrifying, even for the deep south during Jim Crow.  They were all accused of rate.  Shepard was murdered while in custody, Irvin was shot along with Shepherd but survived, Ernest Thomas, who had nothing at all to do with this incident, was hunted down and killed and Charles Geenlee, only 16, was sentenced to life in prison.  And the sheriff, who orchestrated this debacle, received a street named after him.

The only silver linings – Irvin was exonerated and released in 1968 (with no compensation), the street named after sheriff Mccall has since been reverted back to its original name and ll four boys have been formally exonerated for the crimes they were accused.

And the lawyer who defended these boys went on to become the first Black judge to sit on the Supreme Court.


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