I have chosen to use the exact words used by the people of the day in this story. This includes the racial slurs used by those involved. I think using the word “nigger” versus “the N word” impacts the story and shows the prejudice and bigotry that existed back then. Using it is in no way meant to offend anyone, but rather to show the mindset of those involved.
On a dark Saturday night in July, 1949, an incident was alleged to have occured on a desolate stretch of Route 50 between Clermont and Groveland, Florida. There are only two people who know the truth of that ominous night, one is dead and the other hides in Georgia from the truth and the public.
In those days the citrus orchards ruled central Florida on the land of white farmers who hired Black laborers paying them fifteen cents a day to tend and harvest their crops.
There was one Black family in Groveland that managed to rise above the impoverished conditions most were forced to endure. Henry Shepherd, the grandson of a Georgia slave, bought more than fifty acres of swampland in Groveland and over the course of the next few years he drained the swampland exposing rich, fertile soil. This attracted white farmers who bought tracts of land adjacent to Shepherd’s farm.
Still in the Jim Crow era, the Shepherd family was harassed and intimidated by the local whites who tried to drive Shepherd off of his own land. They tore down his fences, let their cattle graze on Shepherd’s land and made threats against Shepherd and any other Blacks that didn’t toe the line enforced by Lake County’s racist Sheriff Willis V. McCall, who was also a KKK member.
The Padgett family owned land next to Shepherd’s farm. When Willie Haven Padgett married Norma Lee Tyson, the newly married couple moved into a small house on the Padgett land.
Trouble with the newlyweds began from the start. Willie was prone to drinking and beating his wife. After about six months they separated and 17 year old Norma moved home with her parents who lived down the road from the Shepherd farm. Willie Padgett’s troubles didn’t end there. He would eventually be arrested a number of times for assault, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and sexual assault of a minor. There was a persistent story around Groveland that young Norma Lee had been having a sexual relationship with Henry Shepherd’s son, Samuel.
Samuel Shepherd was an World War II veteran having served in the Army with his friend Walter Irvin. Both lived in Groveland and proudly wore their Army uniforms around town, much to the dislike of the white townspeople who called them, “uppity niggers”.
Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas were friends and Thomas had encouraged the 16 year old Greenlee to come to Groveland for the abundant work in the citrus groves. Both Greenlee and Thomas were married with families.
Sometime around July 16th, the separated Willie and Norma Padgett decided to try and patch things up. They bought a bottle of whiskey and headed to Clermont for a night of drinking and dancing at the American Legion hall. On the way home to Groveland, Willie pulled over to the side of the road, apparently experiencing car trouble. What happened next is unsubstantiated and completely lacking in credibility.
Allegedly, as the Padgetts sat in their broken down car, another car with four Black men drove by and stopped, offering to help the couple. The four men then beat up Willie Padgett and forced Norma into their car driving to a desolate location in the citrus groves where she was allegedly raped by all four men.
The next morning Norma Padgett walked into a cafe claiming to have been kidnapped. The white restaurant owner gave her a ride home and observed that Norma Padgett did not appear to be upset or express any emotion over the ordeal. Norma never mentioned being raped until after she got home and spoke with her husband.
The more likely scenario was that Willie Padgett had beaten his wife and the two concocted the whole rape story to hide the beating. Willie had been warned by Norma’s family about hitting their daughter and the rape story conveniently hid the truth. What followed the lies spewed by the Padgetts touched off a race riot, attempted lyinchings and the murder of Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd and the shooting of and attempted murder of Walter Irvin by the Sheriff and his deputy.
Niether Willie nor Norma could initially identify their alleged attackers. Within a few short hours of reporting the attack and rape, Sheriff Willis V. McCall had arrested both Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irivin, despite the fact that both men had been in Orlando at the time of the alleged attack. Charles Greenlee was waiting at the train depot for Ernest Thomas to come pick him up. Greenlee had just arrived in town. Ernest Thomas fled the county and the near 1,000 white man posse led by Sheriff McCall. Thomas was found some 200 miles from Groveland and was shot over 400 times by the angry mob. Greenlee was arrested at the depot as one of the alleged rapists.
Despite her claims, there was no physical evidence that Norma Lee Padgett was ever raped. During her testimony at trial, Norma recalled the rape and described it with an utter lack of emotion and with a precise, calculating story.
As someone who has survived being abused and raped, I can tell you that any recollection of the events elicits the strongest of emotions, even decades later. After her testimony, Norma and Willie were photographed talking calmly and drinking sodas.
Norma’s direct testimony is full of vague insinuations. Her answers were matter of fact, completely void of the emotions one would expect the victim of rape to display when recalling such a horrific event. The following is an excerpt from Norma Padgett’s direct testimony:
Question: Now, when you stopped out there, what did they do?
Norma: Well, the Thomas nigger, he raped me first.
Question: You were on the backseat, were you?
Norma: Yes sir. On the backseat of their car.
Question: When they stopped, who was sitting on the backseat with you?
Norma: Well, the Thomas nigger, and Irvin.
Question: Tell the jury what they did when they got there.
Norma: Well, after we stopped, they turned off the lights and the Thomas
nigger raped me first and while…
Question: Go ahead and tell them what happened. Don’t tell them that they raped you. What did happen? What did he do to you?
Norma: Well, he shoved me down on the seat and he pulled my legs apart
and got on me and kissed me and then he put his thing into my privates…
Question: Did he have intercourse with you?
Norma: Yes sir.
Question: Where was the Shepherd man at that time?
Norma: The Shepherd? He was in the front seat.
Question: Well, where was the man that was sitting beside you other than
Norma: Well, he was sitting there, too.
Question: Well, he was sitting there in the seat when he (Thomas) raped you?
Norma: Yes sir.
Question: At the time Thomas was raping you?
Norma: Yes sir.
Question: Then what happened?
Norma: Then the Thomas nigger, he got out, and then Irvin, he raped me.
Question: The same way?
Norma: No sir. The Thomas nigger, he got out and got in the front and then Irvin, he taken me and done me the same way. Only he didn’t kiss me.
Question: What happened then after Irvin and Thomas got through?
Norma: Well I don’t know which one was the next one that done it.
Question: What became of Irvin after he raped you?
Norma: He got out.
Question: Then what happened?
Norma: Then one of the others, I don’t know which one it was.
Question: Go ahead.
Norma: And after they all got through —-
Question: Did all of them have intercourse with you that way?
Norma: Yes sir.
So, my first problem is with the location. This supposedly happened on a dark, desolate road, no street lights, no lighting of any kind. Norma states that when they stopped the car, they turned the lights out. How could she possibly see the faces of her attackers in the blackness of the night with no lighting of any kind?
She mentions that they pulled her legs open but there is no mention of her panties having been removed, or whether she was even wearing panties. I find it very difficult to believe that four grown men could rape a woman and not leave a single trace of the rape even happening. There was no semen on Norma or her clothing. Her vagina showed no signs of a rape having taken place, no skin tears, no foreign pubic hairs, nothing. No reddened or swollen tissue indicating a violent attack. There was no semen found on any of the four men’s clothing. None of the four men had marks indicating Norma fought back, scratched their faces, nothing was found under her fingernails.
The fact that she could sit and testify, recalling everything like she was recounting a church social, completely void of emotion is troubling. Yet her testimony was believed and upheld and people died, Black homes were burned to the ground in three days of race riots and it took the National Guard to come in to restore order.
The toll that was exacted upon the Black community and the defendants wrongfully accused was severe. Ernest Thomas was murdered by the posse led by the bigoted Sheriff McCall. Charles Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison, spared a death sentence because he was only 16 years old. Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were both sentenced to death by electrocution.
In a bizarre twist of fate, their convictions were both overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and a retrial ordered back in Lake County, Florida. As if out of a bad Hollywood movie, the racist Sheriff McCall picks up Irvin and Shepherd in prison and drives them back to Lake County. On a dark stretch of road, McCall pulls his car over to the side of the road. He feigns that he has a flat tire and orders Irvin and Shepherd, who are handcuffed together, to get out of the car to change the tire. Before the two could fully exit the vehicle, Sheriff McCall draws his revolver and starts shooting both men. Unfortunately, Shepherd died on the scene but Irvin was still alive. McCall got on the radio and called his deputy to the scene. The deputy arrives and sees Irvin is still alive and shoots him but he survives. Sheriff McCall claims that the two men tried to escape during the flat tire changing, but coincidentally, he did not have a flat tire. A later investigation by the FBI showed that Irvin was shot while lying on the ground, and not while escaping. Despite all of this, Irvin is retried, Shepherd was dead leaving Irvin to be tried alone. Greenlee was serving a life sentence and didn’t want to appeal his conviction for fear of getting the death penalty.
Surprisingly, Irvin was offered a plea deal which would remove the death penalty. His attorney, the legendary Thurgood Marshall encouraged Irvin to take the deal. Better to get life in prison than to die in the electric chair. When Marshall explained that Irvin would have to admit to the rape and plead guilty, he refused to lie and didn’t take the deal. He was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to death again, only to have his sentence eventually commuted to life in prison by the Governor of Florida, LeRoy Collins. By that time, even the prosecutor of the trial began to have doubts that Irvin was guilty.
Ultimately, four innocent men were accused of a crime they did not commit. Two of those men were murdered by bigots and racists and the other two spent considerable time in prison before finally being released. Charles Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and moved to Nashville with his wife and child. They had another child in 1965. He died in 2012. Walter Irvin was paroled in 1968. In 1969 he returned to Lake County and was mysteriously found dead in his car. Foul play was never investigated. The good Sheriff McCall stated that Walter Irvin died of natural causes.
James Shepherd, the older brother of Samuel Shepherd, was living in Lake County, but couldn’t live in Groveland, it was too hard. The good Shepherd family name had been ruined, the family torn by racial violence and hatred. Their home had been burned to the ground. A firestorm of racial violence had erupted in Lake County because a white woman said she was raped by four Black men. The honor and virtue of a southern white woman had to be restored and avenged…and any four Black men would do.
On a warm summer day in 1998 in Lake County, possibly a warm July day, a woman walked up to the home of James Shepherd and his wife Alene and rang the doorbell. She asked to speak to James Shepherd alone and was invited into the house. It was only a short visit, maybe five or ten minutes long. Afterwards she left and drove off with a man who was standing by a car while she was inside.
“Who was that?” Alene asked her husband.
“That woman,” James replied.
“That white woman from Groveland,” James answered.
“Norma?” Alene asked.
“What did she say?”
“She said it never happened,” James replied as a tear fell from his eye.
** If you would like to read more about what happened in Groveland, I recommend a book by Gilbert King. He is the author of “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America”, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
Thank you dear Jackie for sharing the powerful story. We cannot forget the past. I am 1/2 Ojibwa last years. 6,000 young Native Americans children were found in un-mark graves. No-one paid for these sins. Racism and hate. A never ending battle for the safety of everyone.
Thank you for your comment. We have such a long way to go when it comes to eliminating racism and hate and everything else. It’s sad that human beings can treat each other so badly.
I have a bit of native ancestry myself, Cherokee/Sioux. It’s nice to hear from others with native ancestry, thank you again for your comment.
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You are welcome dear Jackie. I teach my six grandchildren the Native American ways. They love to fish and shoot the bow and arrow.