71ºF

Historic apology made to 'Groveland Four'

GROVELAND, Fla. – History was made in Groveland Tuesday night. For the first time, the small Florida town formally apologized for civil rights atrocities suffered by the "Groveland Four" -- four black men accused of raping a white woman without any hard evidence linking them to the crime.

"It feels like we can get some closure to this thing, which has been missing for a long time," said Wade Greenlee, who was just 6 years old when his brother, Charles, and three other black men were accused of raping a white woman in 1949.

They became the "Groveland Four" and what followed marked dark days in Florida history.

"Being beaten, walking in glass to get a confession. I heard my mother mention them," Greenlee said.

A posse hunted down and killed Ernest Thomas. The remaining three were beaten and convicted with hardly any evidence. When death sentences for two were overturned, the Lake County sheriff shot them both while handcuffed, killing Samuel Shepherd. Walter Irvin survived the shooting and stayed in prison.

None got justice until Tuesday's City Council meeting, when Mayor Tim Loucks read a proclamation asking Gov. Rick Scott to posthumously pardon the men.

When asked if the proclamation was a reflection of how times have changed, Greenlee said, "Oh yes. I never thought this would be."

It was a very public apology relatives said is long overdue, but it is only one step in their ultimate goal of seeking an exoneration.

"I think it's past time for this to be done, to clear their names because they never did it," said Sophia Threat, Irvin's niece. "This is a start, but it needs to keep going all the way to the governor."

Vivian Shepherd, Samuel Shepard's niece, said, "We're very thankful and we're looking for that exoneration."