The Tragic Story Of The Groveland Four, The Black Men Who Were Accused Of Rape In Jim Crow Florida

Published February 28, 2023
Updated March 1, 2023

In July 1949, Norma Padgett accused four Black men of sexually assaulting her and violent mobs quickly formed to bring her attackers to justice — destroying the lives of four innocent men.

In 1949, four young Black men were accused of raping a white teenager in Florida. One of the Groveland Four was soon killed by an angry mob, while another was murdered by the county sheriff himself. The other two men spent years in prison before they were released on parole.

However, there was never any physical evidence to suggest that Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas had raped 17-year-old Norma Padgett. Regardless, the court of public opinion in the Jim Crow-era South prevailed, and the men were immediately deemed guilty.

Groveland Four

Library of CongressWalter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, and Samuel Shepherd (left to right) after their arrest by Sheriff Willis McCall (far left).

It wasn’t until 2019 that Governor Ron DeSantis issued a posthumous pardon. And by the time the men were officially exonerated in 2021, none of them were alive to witness the occasion.

This is the tragic story of the Groveland Four, the men whose lives were cut short by one unfounded accusation.

Norma Padgett Accuses The Groveland Four Of Rape

On July 16, 1949, 17-year-old Norma Padgett and her husband Willie were driving home from a dance in Groveland, Florida. According to NBC News, Padgett claimed that their car stalled and four Black men stopped and offered to help. The men then allegedly abducted and raped Padgett after attacking her husband.

Within hours of Padgett reporting the assault, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall had put together a posse. The angry mob marched into Black neighborhoods, burning down homes and threatening residents.

Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin were arrested first. The 22-year-old World War II veterans were brutally beaten while police questioned them. Per the African American Registry, officers took them to the scene of the alleged crime and grew frustrated that their shoes didn’t match any of the footprints nearby. The police then transported them to jail, handcuffed them to pipes in the basement, and continued to beat them in an effort to force a confession.

Willis Virgil McCall

Twitter/Dr. Marvin DunnSheriff Willis McCall led a violent mob to hunt down the Groveland Four.

Charles Greenlee, who was just 16 years old, was arrested soon after Shepherd and Irvin. He admitted that he knew Thomas, who was helping him find a job, but he maintained that he’d never even met Irvin or Shepherd. Police also viciously beat Greenlee, who ultimately admitted to raping Padgett — but only so the battering would stop.

When 26-year-old Ernest Thomas became aware of what was happening, he tried to flee. A violent posse of 1,000 white men led by McCall tracked him down a week later. They found him sleeping under a tree in a swamp and proceeded to shoot him more than 400 times.

With the Groveland Four either dead or behind bars, the hysteria started to fade — until it came time for their trials.

The Trials Of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, And Samuel Shepherd

Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd faced all-white juries as they attempted to prove their innocence. Unfortunately, their trials were rigged against them from the start.

The doctor who had examined Norma Padgett after her alleged rape found no evidence of semen or signs of assault, according to the African American Registry. In fact, there was no evidence that she’d even been raped at all.

However, a judge refused to allow the Groveland Four’s defense to call the doctor as a witness.

Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, And Samuel Shepherd

Library of CongressWalter Irvin (right) and Samuel Shepherd (left) were 22-year-old World War II veterans. Charles Greenlee (center) was 16 years old.

When Bill Gladson, a state attorney for the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Florida, filed a motion to exonerate the Groveland Four in 2021, he wrote, “The evidence strongly suggests that the sheriff, the judge, and the prosecutor all but ensured guilty verdicts in this case.”

Despite the lack of any evidence against the Groveland Four, they were all found guilty. According to Blackpast, Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, while Greenlee received life in prison due to his age.

The case incited outrage in the Black community, and soon future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall decided to represent the young men in their appeal for justice.

Appealing The Death Penalty

In 1951, the United States Supreme Court overturned the original sentences of Irvin and Shepherd due to adverse pre-trial publicity and ordered the Florida courts to retry their case.

Sheriff McCall was furious. He arranged to transport Shepherd and Irvin from the prison where they were being held to the Lake County jailhouse to await the trial. During the nighttime drive, McCall pulled his gun and shot both Shepherd and Irvin, killing Shepherd.

Willis Mccall After Shooting Irvin And Shepherd

University of Florida Documentary InstituteSheriff Willis McCall standing next to the bodies of Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin after shooting them.

McCall claimed the two men had tried to escape. But Irvin told a very different story.

According to Irvin, the sheriff had suddenly ordered both men out of the car before shooting them. Per PBS, while Irvin lay on the ground wounded, he heard McCall say on the police radio, “I got rid of them; killed the sons of bitches.”

When a deputy arrived on the scene and noticed that Irvin was still breathing, he shot the injured man again, this time in the neck. Irvin only survived by playing dead.

McCall’s premeditated execution of a handcuffed prisoner went without punishment. The coroner’s inquiry cleared McCall of any wrongdoing — and even praised the sheriff’s actions.

Irvin went on to face his retrial alone. Once again, an all-white jury found him guilty of rape and sentenced him to death, though his sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison when a more moderate governor was elected in 1954.

Walter Irvin On Trial

Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesThurgood Marshall and Paul Perkins represented Walter Irvin during his retrial in 1952. This photograph shows Irvin, on the right, with his two attorneys.

Ultimately, Irvin spent 19 years in prison. He was paroled in 1968, but he died from a heart attack the very next year. Meanwhile, Charles Greenlee was paroled in 1962 after 13 years in prison. Upon his release, he left Florida, never to return.

The Groveland Four Are Finally Exonerated

Charles Greenlee was the only member of the Groveland Four to live past 1970 — and the only one who lived beyond his 30s. He died in 2012, seven years before the state pardoned the men in 2019.

Greenlee’s family had fought for years for the pardon. And then, in 2021, a Florida judge officially exonerated the Groveland Four.

“We all know how things were back then,” Wade Greenlee, the brother of Charles, told the Tampa Bay Times. “All you had to do was be black. The reason we’re here today, is because Irvin didn’t die. God allowed him to live to tell the story.”

Jury In Groveland Four Case

Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesDuring his 1952 retrial, an all-white jury found Walter Irvin guilty and sentenced him to the electric chair.

Much like the horrific murder of Emmett Till, the Groveland Four case was based on a lie. When NAACP lawyer Franklin Williams investigated the original accusation, he concluded that the Padgetts fabricated the story to cover up spousal abuse — Norma’s parents had warned Willie not to hit their teenage daughter.

Sadly, the injustice of the case stretched well beyond the four young men falsely accused of rape. Harry Moore, an NAACP official who fought for Irvin’s retrial, and his wife Harriette died in a 1951 bombing of their home because they spoke out against the case.

The young men known as the Groveland Four were caught up in an unjust system and paid with their lives. And none of the people responsible for their deaths faced any consequences. The tragic, true story of the Groveland Four stands today as a devastating example of Jim Crow-era racial injustice.

The horrific treatment of the Groveland Four was not an isolated incident. Next, read about how Emmett Till’s tragic death fueled the civil rights movement. Then, learn about the Central Park Five.

Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "The Tragic Story Of The Groveland Four, The Black Men Who Were Accused Of Rape In Jim Crow Florida.", February 28, 2023, Accessed June 14, 2024.