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Sixty-eight Years Later, Apologies in Lake County

For the lives ruined, for justice denied, sorry.

From left, Sheriff Willis McCall, jailer Reuben Hatcher, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee and Samuel Shepherd, at the Lake County Jail in 1949.

This story was published in partnership with The Atlantic.

W hen Vivian Shepherd, an administrative secretary at East Ridge High School, left her Lake County, Fla., home on the morning of April 18, she knew she’d be cutting it close. Tallahassee was a good three and a half hours away, but the long drive north would be worth it. Florida’s House of Representatives was scheduled to officially apologize for the “gross injustices” in the case of the Groveland Boys, and one of those “boys” was Samuel Shepherd—the uncle she’d never met—gunned down by Sheriff Willis McCall on the side of a dark Lake County road in 1951, 10 years before Vivian was born.

She made good time, and after finding a parking space near the Florida Capitol Complex in Tallahassee, she rushed toward the House Office Building. There was a line at the security entrance, and after passing through a metal detector, Vivian, a diabetic, was feeling hypoglycemic and recognized that she needed to eat something. She picked up some yogurt in the cafeteria, quickly ate it, and then rushed back up to the fourth floor, where guards told her that the legislative session had already commenced. The doors could not be opened.

The rest of her family, Vivian pleaded, was inside, sitting with the Irvins and Greenlees, the other families from the Groveland case who had also come to witness Florida’s historic apology. She’d been texting them just minutes before, she said. The guard was sorry. He told her she could fill out a form that would be taken inside the chamber to one of the co-sponsors of the bill, and perhaps the representative would send a staff member out for her. Vivian Shepherd took a deep breath, filled out the form, and handed it to a man she never saw again. What the guards didn’t tell Vivian was that she’d been trying to gain entry on the wrong floor; that the families of the Groveland Boys were one floor up, seated in the balcony, which was open to the public. So instead of being directed to the elevator, Vivian Shepherd waited hopelessly in the lobby. On a nearby television monitor, she could see Rep. Bobby DuBose addressing the families. She strained to hear through the doors as the House voted unanimously, 117-0, to apologize to the families of the Groveland Boys. And she could hear the applause as the representatives rose from their seats to face the dozen or so family members.

“The state of Florida was wrong, and we’re sorry,” DuBose told them.

The Irvins and the Greenlees soon emerged from the elevators and spotted Vivian in the lobby. With tears that turned to sobs, the broken-hearted niece of Samuel Shepherd was enveloped by family hugs.

“I’d been waiting years for this day,” Vivian said. “That was a moment in time that I was supposed to be there for. All that we’ve done…all that we’ve worked for…I’ll never get that moment back.”

It was not the first apology that Vivian Shepherd had missed.

D uring World War II, Vivian’s grandfather Henry Shepherd, the grandson of a Georgian slave, purchased 55 acres of swampland in Groveland, Fla., and spent the next few years enduring countless snakebites in his efforts to drain the property and make it something of value. Once he was finished, poor white farmers took advantage of the now desirable tracts of rich Florida soil and purchased the lots around Shepherd at bargain prices, leading to an unexpected breakdown in residential segregation in south Lake County.

Shepherd built a modest six-room house and maintained a small farm with help from three sons and three daughters, while his wife Ida Mae had “the best preserve cellar in the area.” Henry’s white neighbors tried to run Shepherd off his land. They knocked down his fences and allowed their cattle to graze on his land, destroying Shepherd’s crops just before harvest. An unsympathetic Sheriff Willis McCall arrived on the scene and told the farmer, “No nigger has a right to file any claim against a white man.”

Despite Henry and Ida Mae’s attempts to reason with their neighbors, the harassment and threats continued. They refused to leave. All of that changed on a summer night in 1949, when one of those neighbors—a 17-year-old white girl—told Lake County deputies and Sheriff McCall that she’d been raped by four black men.

The Padgett family owned land that abutted the Shepherd farm, and when Norma Lee Tyson married Willie Padgett, the young couple moved into a small house on the Padgett property. Their marriage was rocky from the start. There were rumors around town that Willie would drink and sometimes become violent toward his wife. The couple separated after just six months; Norma moved back home with her parents who also lived down the road from the Shepherds.

On July 17, Norma and Willie decided to try and patch things up. They picked up a bottle of whiskey and went out drinking and dancing at a local American Legion hall. By daybreak, Norma turned up outside a café in nearby Okahumpka, claiming that four black men had beaten up her husband and forced her into their car at gunpoint.

Samuel Shepherd while he was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, circa 1948. He was shot to death by Sheriff Willis McCall in Lake County, Fla., in 1951.

Within hours, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, 22-year-old childhood friends and army buddies from Groveland, were arrested, taken into the basement beneath the Lake County jail, and severely beaten by deputies. Sixteen-year-old Charles Greenlee was also arrested and beaten, and a fourth suspect, Ernest Thomas, was hunted down by a posse and shot dead in a north Florida swamp.

Word spread that some young black men in Groveland had raped a white woman, and a heavily armed mob of klansmen, accompanied by Willie Padgett and Norma’s father, Coy Tyson, showed up outside the Lake County jail. They demanded that Sheriff McCall release the prisoners to them for what was certain to be a lynching. McCall managed to hold the mob at bay, but they returned to Groveland and began burning black homes to the ground. Henry Shepherd’s house was reduced to ashes.

Thousands of dollars worth of tools and farm equipment were stolen from a still-smoldering shed, and the Shepherds were forced to flee Lake County, holing up at a relative’s home in Orlando.

“They tell me my chickens and ducks are all gone,” Shepherd said at the time, reduced to mumbling that he wanted “no more trouble.”

But the worst of Henry Shepherd’s troubles were just beginning. In 1951, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his son’s guilty verdict, calling the trial and its surrounding atmosphere “one of the worst menaces to American justice,” Sheriff Willis McCall decided to personally transport the defendants from Raiford prison back to Lake County for the retrial. Turning down a dark clay road, McCall stopped his car, pulled his gun, and executed Samuel Shepherd. Walter Irvin, handcuffed to his best friend, was shot three times, but he survived to tell the FBI a story of cold blooded murder—a version of events that the FBI later corroborated in its investigation, contradicting McCall’s claim that he was attacked during an inexplicable escape attempt.

Yet despite the FBI’s forensic evidence of murder and attempted murder, a Lake County judge refused to impanel a grand jury, and a U.S. Attorney in Tampa was unmoved to investigate the sheriff. Walter Irvin was given a few weeks to recover from his gunshot wounds so that he could once again stand trial for the rape of Norma Padgett.

Samuel Shepherd in his coffin in November 1951. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund paid for his funeral.

Henry Shepherd’s eldest son, James, a highly skilled auto mechanic in Groveland, was married to Walter Irvin’s sister, Henrietta. James Shepherd attended the retrial and was standing with Walter’s mother when Thurgood Marshall informed them of a deal proposed by a representative of Gov. LeRoy Collins: if Walter Irvin pleaded guilty to rape, the state would agree to spare his life. Marshall, convinced that the jury would once again convict, and convinced that the judge would once again sentence his client to death, urged Irvin to accept the plea. Better to be alive, the civil rights attorney reasoned, and they could wait until the case quieted down before attempting to secure Irvin’s release from prison.

With James Shepherd at his side, Irvin considered the offer. Then he’d made up his mind. He would not lie. He did not rape Norma Padgett, and he wasn’t going to say he did, even if the state of Florida agreed to spare him from the electric chair. And just as Marshall expected, Walter Irvin was once again convicted by 12 white jurors and sentenced to death.

This time, however, the nation was watching. Governor Collins would go on to commute Irvin’s sentence to life in prison, saying, “My conscience told me it was a bad case, badly handled, badly tried.” His own investigation helped him conclude that the evidence did not clearly establish the Groveland Boys’ guilt. Collins was aided in his decision by an extraordinary letter he’d received from the prosecutor, Jesse Hunter—a staunch segregationist—who informed the governor that he was no longer convinced that Irvin had raped Norma Padgett.

It would be another 62 years before the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill formally apologizing to the Groveland families--an act that was repeated one week later, unanimously again, in the Florida Senate. The resolution also calls on Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet to perform an expedited clemency review of the cases and grant full pardons. Several members of the Tyson and Padgett families were upset to learn of Florida's apologies last month and took to social media to express their dismay. "If the state wants to apologize for their treatment during and after their apprehension[,] fine," one family member wrote. "But exonerate them of their crime [,] no."

J ames Shepherd eventually did work his way back from Orlando to Lake County, but he knew he could never again live in Groveland. Instead he purchased a small home just a few miles down the road from the old family farm in the adjacent city of Clermont, and he began to raise a family with his second wife, Alene. They had two daughters, Vivian and Erma, and lived peacefully there for many years. In 1998, James’s health was failing. Complications from his diabetes had resulted in a few amputated toes, hands that had become increasingly numb, and a weakening heart. Throughout that summer, old friends arrived at the Shepherd home to pay respects to the trusty mechanic and longtime Lake County family man.

Vivian Shepherd was living in Gainesville in 1998 when she received a Monday night telephone call from her mother. They chatted briefly about James’s health. Then, Alene said something curious.

“That lady came to the house yesterday,” she told Vivian.

“What lady?” Vivian asked.

“You know,” Alene said. “From Groveland.”

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Norma Padgett had not spoken publicly about the case she’d been at the center of since 1949, when she was admonished for telling a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times a few details that didn’t exactly square with her original trial testimony. She also admitted to the reporter that her father didn’t have much confidence in her testifying in court; he’d even bet a man that she’d “mess up” on the witness stand. Norma added that she didn’t much care for that “nigger lawyer” defending the Groveland Boys.

When the explosive three-part story was published in the spring of 1950, both McCall and the prosecutor, Jesse Hunter were livid. Norma was sternly warned to never again discuss the case. To this day, she has not spoken to any journalists, nor made any public statements. But according to the Shepherds, she did not remain completely silent.

Norma Padgett and her husband Willie after questioning by the state's attorney, in a 1949 newspaper clipping.

Norma stayed married to Willie Padgett through both of the Groveland trials. Observers assumed it was for appearances’ sake in court—to present the image of a happy young farm couple whose lives were shattered by four black savages. The couple did have children together, but their marriage was anything but bliss. For Willie Padgett proved Norma’s daddy right about one thing. He was trouble.

In July 1952, Willie was arrested in Lake County, charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and sentenced to five months in jail. After a felony sexual assault charge in Orlando, he was in and out of jail on charges from fraud, to vehicle theft, to a sex offense with another minor in Miami.

Norma dropped the Padgett name, the couple divorced in 1958, and she remarried to another Lake County man a few years later.

By 1998, Willie was dead, as was Norma’s second husband (whose surname she uses today), and the 66-year-old widow was still living in Groveland. In the summer of that year, Alene Shepherd called her daughter, Vivian, to tell her the story of the white woman who showed up at the Shepherd home in Clermont.

Norma rang the doorbell. Alene could see a man waiting by his car on the street.

“May I see James Shepherd?” Norma asked.

James Shepherd slowly limped to the door and opened it for Norma. Alene gave them privacy, and the two former Groveland neighbors sat on the interior porch “for about five minutes," she recounted to her daughter.

When the two were done speaking, James came stoically back into the living room. Norma and the man drove away.

“What was that about?” Alene asked.

“That was Norma,” James said. He told his wife that she’d come to talk about his brother, Sam. And about the rape.

“What did she say?” Alene asked.

“She said it never happened.”

Driven from Groveland, the Shepherd family had lost their house and farm in what Florida legislators described as the state’s “dark times” of racism. The swamp acreage that Henry Shepherd had painstakingly drained and cultivated eventually came into the possession of one of Norma’s sons. For the Shepherds, there was no going back to Groveland anyway. Samuel had been dead nearly 50 years, and despite James’s reputation as a man of character and faith, the Shepherd name remained tainted in Lake County; Willis McCall’s rendition of the Groveland story became the version that endured. There were venomous, shameful words that followed the Shepherd nieces and nephews through their school years and beyond—smears that resonated for decades.

Weeks from his last moments on earth, when his heart would ultimately fail him, James Shepherd said he had heard Norma concede what he’d known all along.

“She apologized,” James told his wife.

As Alene Shepherd described to her daughters the meeting between James and Norma, neither Vivian nor Erma doubted their parents for even a second. “It happened,” Vivian said.

“We’re Christians,” Erma added, noting that her father made sure the family never missed service at Clermont’s New Jacobs Missionary Baptist Church. James Shepherd never sought “closure” to the family ruin he’d endured in Groveland a half century before, nor had he ever attempted to come to terms with his tragic past. The past he simply buried. The pain was too great, and like so many victims of racial terror and brutality in the Jim Crow South, the Shepherds remained silent, not wanting to poison their own children’s hearts with stories of hatred. “My father did not carry prejudice,” Erma said. “He never held bitterness.”

Norma’s visit was unsolicited and unexpected, but James Shepherd welcomed her into his Lake County home and listened solemnly to the woman’s plea for forgiveness.

Vivian Shepherd didn’t need to ask her mother what happened next. Despite what the doctors had said, she knew there was still strength in James Shepherd’s heart.

“My father accepted the apology,” Vivian said.

Several attempts were made, through previously cooperative family members, to contact Norma for a comment on the state of Florida’s apologies to the families of the Groveland Boys, as well as on the Shepherds’ story of her visit to their home in Clermont. Contact was eventually made with a close relative who emphatically made it clear that the family would have no comment.

Gilbert King 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. His next book, "Beneath a Ruthless Sun", will be published by Riverhead Books in 2018.