Leonard Pitts Jr.: The Groveland Four, justice denied for 66 years … and counting

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

It was the road sign that made it real.

Josh Venkataraman was returning to the University of Florida, where he is a senior, from Orlando earlier this year when he saw it. “Groveland,” it said.

He had read what happened there in Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove,” for a class a few years before “and it touched me.” But seeing that sign did more; bringing home to him that Groveland was a real and tangible place where a real and tangible atrocity unfolded beginning in 1949. That, he says, was when he knew “I really wanted to get involved and change history, essentially.”

So Venkataraman, who, as a high school student, won a Silver Knight, a service award given by The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, sought out Carol Greenlee, a 65-year-old consultant in Nashville. Her father, Charles Greenlee, was the last of the so-called “Groveland Four.” He died in 2012.

She admits she was skeptical of this 21-year-old kid and questioned him closely. But when Venkataraman asked for her support in mounting a petition drive on behalf of her father and the other men, she gave it. “I’m in the mode of trying to get my father exonerated,” she explains, “and I need all the help I can get.”

The two of them want one thing from you: your name on their petition. It’s at “http://www.change.org/p/richard-scott-exonerate-the-groveland-four” target=”_blank”>www.change.org/p/richard-scott-exonerate-the-groveland-four. To reiterate: They’re not asking Florida Gov. Rick Scott for a pardon. They want exoneration — recognition that these men were not just innocent of the crime for which they were charged, but that the “crime” itself never happened.

King details in his book how a young white woman named Norma Lee Padgett concocted a tale of gang rape by four black men. A doctor’s exam turned up no evidence of sexual assault. Neighbors who saw Padgett right after the alleged attack said she was neither disheveled nor panicked. They scoffed at the idea she was raped, but refused to testify for the defense. “Wouldn’t do to be called n—-r lover,” one said.

In Klan-infested postwar Florida, Padgett’s flimsy claim was enough for police to essentially start rounding up black men en masse: Walter Irwin, Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas and Charles Greenlee. The men didn’t all know each other. No forensic evidence tied them to the “crime.” But again, this was Florida in 1949.

Before it was over, a white mob would rampage through an African-American community, one man would be killed trying to escape, three would be beaten and tortured, the sheriff would summarily execute one man, and the remaining two would be convicted.

Carol, born shortly after her father’s arrest, says she grew up feeling a “cloud” over the Greenlee name. When she was young, her mother used to take her to visit him weekly “until he couldn’t take it to see me anymore and he told my mother not to ever bring me back there again.” She didn’t see him again until he was paroled. She was 11 by then.

Here’s why this matters: Some people like to pretend the world sprang into existence yesterday. In an era of mass incarceration and epidemic police misbehavior, they earnestly wonder why African Americans often don’t trust law enforcement. Here, then, is an instructive reminder, past tapping present on the shoulder — justice denied for 66 years and counting.

“You still have innocent people,” says Carol Greenlee, “innocent black men, every day being rejected, being dejected and being put in prison for things they have not done. So we’ve got to find a way to correct the injustice that a group of people have been experiencing for years. I’m 65 years old and I’m still looking for justice for my father, who was wrongfully imprisoned for something he didn’t do and really didn’t happen. Why don’t you correct that?”

Email: lpitts@miamiherald.com

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