Lake County Commissioners resolved to try and heal their county’s racial scars on Tuesday when they passed a resolution to urge Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet to exonerate the members of the “Groveland Four.”
In 1948, four black men in Lake County, Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, were accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman. Thomas fled town and would later be shot and killed by a mob that claimed he had been armed and reaching for a weapon, and Shepherd was killed by Sheriff Willis McCall in what McCall said was an escape attempt.
Irvin, who was with Shepherd and survived by pretending to be dead, claimed the shooting had been unprovoked – though no charges were ever filed against McCall or the Sheriff’s department.
Mob violence and police brutality surrounded the entire case. The men had alibis and denied involvement in the rape, but were convicted by an all-white jury.
At Tuesday’s meeting, each commissioner voiced praise for the push to pardon the Groveland Four through Senate Contract Resolution Number 136, proposed by Senator Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat. The resolution would exonerate them from the crime they were accused of and extend apologies to any surviving descendants of the Groveland Four.
Commissioner Sean Parks said that although he “believes Lake County to be the best county in Florida,” there was no denying the black mark that the Groveland Four case and the way law enforcement handled it left on the area.
Now, he said, all they can do is try to move forward.
“In 1949, Lake County wasn’t the best place to live if you were African American,” he said. “Sometimes, it was downright dangerous. That dark chapter of our past is already written – we can’t re-write it. But we can write a new chapter. As the next generation grows up, they will absolutely think about the place they want to live in. They will want to live in a community that is unified.”
Commissioner Jimmy Conner said it was “never too late to say you’re sorry,” adding that the county had truly come a long way since the 1940s and now had a good relationship with its African American residents.
Commissioner Leslie Campione applauded Parks’ somber recollections, and said she hoped there was a way they could include surviving family members of the Groveland Four in the proceedings.
The resolution was passed unanimously by the board.