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Families of 4 black men in 1949 rape case seek apology

By Eloisa Ruano Gonzalez, Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Lake County, Fla., is being asked to confront its racist past as the families of three of the four black citrus pickers accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl in 1949 demand an apology from state and county officials.

The families say all the men, who became known as the Groveland Four, were wrongly accused of the crime and that FBI files recently unsealed should clear their names.

The files contain a report showing that the doctor who examined the teenager said he found no evidence of a sexual assault, though the doctor couldn’t say for certain that she wasn’t raped.

Despite the absence of conclusive proof, the fact that the doctor found no trace of sperm should be enough to clear the men of the crime, said one of the relatives, who will appear at a news conference Friday make their case for an apology. Families of three of the men are expected to attend.

“It tells me those guys were railroaded,” said Wade Greenlee, 69, of Jacksonville. He is the brother of Charles Greenlee, one of the Groveland Four.

Two of the men were defended by Thurgood Marshall, the chief attorney of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who went on to become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case exploded in 1951 after notorious Lake Sheriff Willis McCall shot and killed Samuel Shepherd and wounded Walter Irvin as he transported them to a new hearing. Marshall and his staff successfully appealed their death sentences to the U.S. Supreme Court, and new trials had been ordered.

Irvin said McCall shot them without provocation. McCall, who had a reputation as a racist but was cleared of wrongdoing in the case by a federal grand jury, said the two handcuffed men attacked him and tried to escape.

Charles Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison by an all-white jury and didn’t appeal because he was afraid he might wind up with a death sentence. The fourth member of the group, Ernest Thomas, fled to North Florida after the allegation surfaced and was killed in a manhunt.

The manhunt took place after the girl and her 23-year-old husband said they were attacked by four black men while heading home from Okahumpka, where they went after a Clermont dance to get a bite to eat. The girl accused the men of kidnapping and raping her — allegations that incited a mob to attack homes in a nearby black community.

Gary Corsair, author of “The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching,” who organized Friday’s news conference, said he wasn’t able to get in touch with Thomas’ family. He said he attempted to get the FBI files a few years ago. However, he said much of the information in them was redacted.

He recently obtained a copy of the unredacted files from author Gilbert King, who visited Groveland earlier this year to discuss his book “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.” King briefly mentioned Dr. Geoffrey Binneveld’s report in his book.

The FBI report quotes Binneveld as saying, “If I were asked if the woman was raped, I would have to answer ‘I don’t know.’ “

Corsair argued that the doctor’s report alone provides reasonable doubt that that a rape took place.

Wade Greenlee said his brother, who was the last of the surviving Groveland Four, died April 18 at age 78 in Nashville, Tenn., where he owned an air-conditioning business.

He said he and his family hold no resentment or hatred toward Lake County or those involved in the case. Although he’s concerned about bring up a dark chapter from the past, Greenlee said a public apology would bring justice to his late brother.

“It will erase some doubt in people’s minds,” Greenlee said.

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