Saturday, June 12, 2021

1949 - The African Community VS. Willis McCall

The African Community VS. Willis McCall

   African-American soldiers returning to Florida, from military service at the end of WW II, found that, although they had taken part in changing the history of the world, their world was little changed.
   Only 29 years before, in 1920, the Ocoee Massacre had occurred, where the democratic white citizens of the city, together with groups from Orlando, murdered over 35 of the repulican black residents, who were trying to vote in Ocoee, and drove out the rest, until they had an all white town.

   However, during and after WW II, in Lake County citrus was still king and Blacks were in high demand. They were needed to work the groves, especially at harvest time, due to a shortage of labor caused by the war. Groveland had become the center of Black activity in Lake County.
   This was the world Sam Shepard and Walt Irvin returned to when they came back to their parents home in Groveland, after serving in the army.
   Sam and Walt continued to wear their military uniforms, which immediately attracted the attention of Lake County Sheriff, Willis McCall. Sheriff McCall's scandals and brutal treatment of Blacks, throughout Lake County, had become widely known, thanks largely to the work of journalist Mabel Norris Reese. McCall bluntly told the pair of veterans, Shepard and Irvin, to remove their uniforms and get to work in the orange groves, but they refused.

   In the early morning hours of July 16, 1949, Willie Padgett and his 17 year old wife were on their way home from a dance when their car stalled on a lonely backroad in Okahumpka. What happens in the predawn hours remains a matter of dispute, but Willie claimed that four black men stopped to help them, attacked him and left him on the side of the road while they drove off with his wife. She later told police that she had been raped.

   Within hours, Greenlee, Shepherd and Irvin were in jail. Thomas the 4th suspect avoided a posse, led by McCall, until he was shot and killed about 200 miles northwest of Lake County.
   As word spread, a lynch mob gathered at the county jail in Tavares demanding that McCall turn the three over for their brand of instant justice. According to a reporter, McCall had hidden the suspects in an orange grove, but told the mob the three had been transferred to the state prison. McCall urged them to "let the law handle this calmly."

   Even though the alleged attack happened in Okahumpka, the mob left Tavares and turned to the town of Groveland, which was home to a large African-American community. Driving in a caravan, once they arrived the mob began shooting into Black homes and setting them on fire. However, the local Blacks had been warned of the impending mob and fled the area before the they arrived.

   On July 18, Governor Warren sent in the National Guard, taking six days to restore order. The Guard stationed machine guns along the road leading into Groveland and Mascotte in order to to deter any more mob activity from entering Groveland.

   Throughout the ordeal, journalist were sending out their reports from the nearest teletype office, which was in Groveland.
   When newspapers began receiving reports of the incidents, they were marked as coming from Groveland, so they began headlining the articles with "The Groveland Four", even though most of the events occured near Okahumpka or Tavares, not Groveland.

   The surviving three African-American young men were badly beaten into confessing and were wrongfully convicted in 1949, despite contrary evidence.
   They were finally exonerated in 2016 by the Florida State Legislature.



[Contributors: Jason Brown, Richard Helfst]

Next Article: 1950s - New Roads Lead to Home 






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