Black soldiers returning to Florida from military service at the end of World War II found that although they had taken part in changing the history of the world, their world was little changed. In rural Lake County, citrus was still king and blacks were needed to work in the fields, especially at harvesting time when a shortage of labor meant oranges falling to the ground to rot.
Sheriff Willis V. McCall
That was the world Sammy Shepherd and Walter Irvin returned to when they came home to their parents’ Groveland homes after serving in the Army. Groveland had become was the center of black activity in Lake County. They immediately attracted the attention of Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, whose brutal treatment of blacks had become widely known. McCall’s major job was to keep union organizers out of the county and make sure there was a steady supply of fruit pickers who were willing to work for low wages.
Shepherd and Irvin were violating several of McCall’s rules. The two continued to wear their Army uniforms, as if to show that they were somehow better, they refused to work in the fields, and their fathers had demonstrated an independence that did not sit well with the whites. McCall told them bluntly to remove their uniforms and get to work in the white-owned orange groves.
Shepherd’s father, Henry, had his own farm, carved out of what had been considered worthless swamp land. He had prospered during the war and became an icon for blacks living in substandard conditions. But for whites, he was a symbol of what could happen if blacks farmed their own property and stopped working for whites. The Irvin family had also done well.
For McCall, there were other disturbing trends which threatened to upset the power structure. Harry T. Moore, the executive director of the Florida NAACP, had formed the Progressive Voters League to encourage blacks to register to vote and to endorse political candidates. Between 1947 and 1950, the number of blacks registered to vote in Florida more than doubled to 116,000.
A Charge of Rape
But that progress seemed to disappear in the early morning of July 16, 1949. Exactly what happened in the predawn hours remains a matter of dispute. A young white couple, Willie and Norma Padgett, told police that they were on their way home from a dance when their car stalled on a lonely road. The two said that Shepherd, Irvin and two other blacks, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas, had stopped to help them. But Willie Padgett claimed that the four attacked him and left him on the side of the road while they drove off with his wife. Seventeen-year-old Norma Padgett told police that she was raped.
Within hours, Greenlee, Shepherd, and Irvin were in jail. Thomas fled the county and avoided a posse led by McCall until he was shot and killed about 200 miles northwest of Lake County.
As word spread about the arrest of the three, a crowd gathered at the county jail. An estimated 200 cars carrying 500 to 600 men demanded that McCall turn the three men over to them for their brand of instant justice. According to Ormond Powers, a reporter for the Orlando Morning Sentinel who covered the case, McCall had hidden the suspects in a nearby orange grove, but told the mob they had been transferred to the state prison. Norma and Willie Padgett and Norma’s father were allowed to examine the jail. They told the mob the prisoners were gone and McCall promised that he would see that justice was done and urged them to “let the law handle this calmly.”
A Night of Terror
The members of the mob rejected McCall’s advice. Unable to find the three, the mob looked for a new target. They turned on Groveland. The men drove to Groveland in a caravan and once they arrived, they began shooting into black homes and set them afire. But local blacks apparently had been warned of the approaching caravan and fled. Powers said he remembered blacks being loaded into trucks to get them out of town.
Even with the coming of dawn, the mob was not through. In Groveland, a number of black-owned homes had suffered damage, although the mob saved its greatest vengeance for the home of Henry Shepherd, which was destroyed. They set up blockades on the highway into Groveland and waited for unsuspecting blacks. On July 18, Governor Fuller Warren yielded to the calls of the NAACP and sent in the National Guard. Over the following six days, the Guard gradually restored order.
In Orlando, the president of the Orlando NAACP asked the national office for help and NAACP attorney Franklin Williams promised to come. Williams gathered information that showed the evidence was highly questionable. When Williams met with the three suspects, he found their bodies covered with cuts and bruises – the result of beatings administered by deputies to obtain confessions. The three told Williams that they had been hung from pipes with their feet touching broken glass and clubbed. [View Walter Irvin’s statement to Williams]
Williams had doubts whether the rape had even taken place. Although Norma Padgett claimed to have been raped and kidnapped, a white restaurant owner who gave her a ride after the alleged rape said she did not appear upset and did not mention the rape. Also, she did not claim to have been raped until after talking with her husband. Williams suspected that William Padgett had beaten his wife and the two wanted to hide the truth from her parents, who had warned him against hitting their daughter.
Still, a grand jury – which for the first time had a lone black on the panel – quickly indicted the suspects. The major local newspaper, Orlando Morning Sentinel, ran a front page cartoon with three electric chairs and the caption, “No Compromise.” Powers said, “We always ran our cartoons on page one and in color, so you couldn’t miss it. It was big and it provoked, oh man, they started investigating the newspaper and this upset the publisher very much.” As the trial began, the judge rejected a request for a change of venue.
Despite evidence showing that Shepherd and Irvin were in Orlando at the time of the crime, and Greenlee was nineteen miles away, a jury took just ninety minutes to find them guilty. Norma Padgett testified that she had been raped. [Read Norma Padgett’s testimony] Powers, sitting only a few feet away in the courtroom, saw her as a “small slightly built, very young, she was 17 at the time, a little country girl. She was wearing a house dress. . . . She looked as though a slight breath of wind would blow her over. She was a good witness. She told precisely in graphic language which was unusual at that time, what had happened to her and who did it, identified each man. . . .I thought she was a good witness.”
Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death and the 16-year-old Greenlee was sentenced to prison. Powers recalled the atmosphere at the trial. “The blacks sat in the balcony. There was no mixed seating back in those days. . . . There were bailiffs of course, many, many bailiffs, deputy sheriffs, special whatever, FBI agents. . . . .The little girl who said she was raped described in detail that incident. The State Attorney Jesse Hunter, Jesse W. Hunter, a self-taught man-he never went to law school. . . .one of the best lawyers I ever saw in my life.”
The NAACP had been successful in attracting nationwide publicity for the case, even printing a booklet called “Groveland U.S.A.” as a device to raise funds for the defense. That publicity led the United States Attorney General J. Howard McGrath to order an Investigation… Although McGrath had wanted a fair probe, the man he chose to direct it could not have been a worse choice. McGrath gave the assignment to United States District Attorney Herbert Phillips of Tampa, whose views of race and the guilt of the three defendants was not significantly different from that of the members of the Groveland mob. He refused to call key witnesses and any attempt at a fair investigation vanished.
The Florida Supreme Court upheld the conviction but the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned the convictions of Shepherd and Irvin. (Greenlee had not appealed.) The justices cited pretrial publicity, including the cartoon showing the three electric chairs in the Orlando Morning Sentinel.
The two were set for retrial in Lake County and McCall drove to Raiford State Prison to bring Irvin and Shepherd back to Tavares. McCall said that during the nighttime trip back, he mentioned that one of his tires seemed to be low. McCall said that when he stopped the car to check the tire, and to let Irvin go to the bathroom, Shepherd and Irvin tried to overpower him, even though they were handcuffed together. McCall said he pulled his gun and shot both prisoners. Shepherd was killed, but despite being shot twice, Irvin survived.
Irvin lived to tell a completely different story about that night. He said that McCall pulled the car over to the side of the road and told the two to get out. He pulled his gun and shot Shepherd and Irvin in the upper right chest. Irvin said he pretended to be dead and heard McCall brag on his police radio, “I got rid of them; killed the sons of bitches.” When a deputy arrived and turned his flashlight on Irvin, he noticed that he was still alive and suggested to McCall that Irvin be killed. The deputy pulled the trigger, Irvin said, but the gun misfired. After inspecting his gun, the deputy fired again and shot Irvin in the neck.
Powers said that he went to see McCall in the hospital and that the sheriff did have a bump on his head and was bleeding. “He looked pretty bumped up, so something happened to him.” The coroner’s inquest cleared McCall and even praised him.
Thurgood Marshall Takes The Case
In the second trial, Irvin was represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who replaced Williams. This time, the change of venue was granted, although neighboring Marion County did not offer a significantly different political environment. The new trial attracted even more national attention and the international press began to cover the trial. The trial became a pawn in the Cold War as newspapers in the Soviet Union pointed to the trial as evidence that American blacks were not free.
There was new defense evidence raising questions about the case, but again, the jury just deliberated ninety minutes before finding Irvin guilty. The case was appealed, but in early 1954, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear it. Acting Governor Charley Johns rejected an appeal for clemency and scheduled Irvin’s execution. What saved Irvin was not the legal system, but the political system. Irvin was granted a last-minute stay and in November 1954, Johns was defeated for reelection by the more moderate LeRoy Collins. He asked for a report on the case and after questions were raised about the evidence, he commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison.
The decision was denounced in Lake County. And by the United States Attorney General McGrath, whose denunciation of Collins was publicized throughout the state. In 1962, Greenlee was paroled and Irvin was released in 1968. Greenlee moved to Tennessee after his release and never returned to Florida. Irvin initially moved to Miami, but returned to Lake County for a visit in 1970. He died there of a heart attack.
Willis McCall continued to be reelected by the voters despite charges of corruption and abuse. He was suspended from office by Governor Reubin Askew after a black prisoner was kicked to death. He resigned from office in 1973.