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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.