MAXWELL: Heavy past hangs over Groveland

2/7/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Returning to this small Lake County town always unsettles me. Some of Florida’s darkest moments unfolded here in 1949, and the years that immediately followed. Black History Month is a good time to look back.

In July of that year, reports circulated that four black men had raped a pretty blond. A white mob hunted down the suspects, severely beating them, killing one in a North Florida swamp. Law enforcement rescued the three survivors _ Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin _ and threw them in jail.

There, the lawmen suspended the prisoners from pipes in the boiler room and beat them into unconsciousness. “One of them was so severely beaten that his testicles remained swollen for days,” writes Juan Williams, in his biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “Another was injured so badly that his pants were still caked with dry blood days later when NAACP lawyers came to question him.”

During the following nights, white-hooded night riders spread out across Groveland, Mascotte and other local communities and burned more than 200 black residences to the ground. As the blacks ran for their lives, mobs chased and beat some of them. Several hours later, state guardsmen marshalled and saved the lives of the blacks courageous enough to remain in the area.

Many of my relatives were victims of the mobs’ violence. Some are still alive today. For example, my uncle Joe Maxwell, now in his 80s, was a prime target of the night riders. His crime? As a World War II veteran, he was suspected of sleeping with white women while on rest and recuperation in Europe. Many other black GIs who fought in Europe were attacked for the same reason.

My uncle, his wife Ruby, and their three small children were attacked in their home. Joe’s white boss had warned him the day before that trouble was coming and offered to hide the family. Because he had a shotgun, Joe thought he could protect his family and decided to stay at home.

The next night, as he and Ruby prepared for bed, he heard the mob coming _ the pickups, the rebel yells and the gunfire. The children were in their bed. Joe ran to their room, forced them beneath the bed and placed extra mattresses over them. He ran back to the window and heard a white man yell, “That’s where that damned Joe Maxwell lives.” Ruby begged him to get away from the window. A few seconds after he moved, a bullet shattered the glass, went through the wall and exploded a bag of crayons a few inches above the children’s bed.

If Joe had not moved, he probably would have died. If the children had been in their bed and not under it, one of them might have died. The mob then shot up the house of one of my other uncles and several other houses belonging to my relatives. For the rest of that night, they hid and did not move.

Two days later, Joe and his family, accompanied by state militiamen, boarded a train in Wildwood and traveled to Fort Lauderdale where they stayed with my mother for a week. While they were there, the troops restored calm in Groveland, and many of the black families returned. Some came back to ashes, smoldering debris and empty lots. The families of the four men charged with rape faced the most danger as a mob gathered to lynch them. Again, the troops saved the day.

Back home, Joe’s life was never the same. Before the violence, white men mostly ignored him and other blacks. Now, white men hurled insults and often threw bricks and bottles at black men from their vehicles. A semblance of normalcy did not return for several years.

Meanwhile, the three suspects were convicted of rape. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, under the direction of Thurgood Marshall, defended the men. Shepherd and Irving were sentenced to the electric chair, and Greenlee, 16, was given life, and he did not appeal. Because the prosecution had no physical evidence of a rape, the high court overturned the convictions and ordered new trials for Shepherd and Irving.

While Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall was transferring Shepherd and Irving from Ocala to Tavares, he shot them, killing Shepherd. McCall said the men, handcuffed together, tried to escape. Irving said that McCall was lying, that he tried to kill them in cold blood. Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins pardoned the men.

Groveland’s legacy of racism was set forever with the Groveland rape trial. The town has never come to terms with this ordeal and has not reached out to black residents _ many of them victims. Until reconciliation is attempted, the shadows of Willis McCall and the mobs will hang over this place always.