Not all ugly acts of racism in the South took place in Alabama and Mississippi. In fact, one of the most disturbing acts of racial brutality occurred in Lake County when former Sheriff Willis McCall allegedly shot two African-American men he was transporting from a state prison. The case attracted national attention, and one of the men who survived the shooting was represented by former NAACP lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
This dreadful piece of Lake County’s history was the focus of a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book Devil in the Grove. In April, the book’s author, Gilbert King, spoke to members of the Bookworm Book Club in The Villages. It took him four years to write the book, and much of that time was spent conducting research.
“Once McCall was elected, Lake County became his county,” King said to the crowd of attentive listeners. “He enforced law and order his way.”
King was astounded when he read about the case, which began in July 1949 when Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old white teenager from Groveland, told police four African-American men raped her. Three suspects were arrested within several hours: Sam Shepherd, Walter Irvin, and Charlie Greenlee. During a trial, Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death.
The NAACP appealed the case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices overturned the convictions and ordered a retrial. Robert Jackson, one of the justices, said, “This case presents one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.”
As McCall transported Shepherd and Irvin from death row back to Lake County late at night, he turned down a dirt road and stopped the car. Shepherd was shot three times and killed. Irvin was shot two times and lived. There are two sides of the story as to what happened. McCall claims that they tried to escape, forcing him to shoot them. Irvin says that McCall ordered them to exit the vehicle then shot them in cold blood. Marshall represented Irvin during the second trial.
While researching to write his book, King tracked down the alleged rape victim, Norma Padgett, who was living inside a small mobile home in Georgia. She declined to comment on the rape case, saying it was best to “let sleeping dogs lie.”
King told Bookworm Book Club members that winning the Pulitzer Prize was not a big deal. “I don’t really know what it means. Maybe it will open some doors for me in the future. I’m more proud of the fact that this book will help open people’s eyes to history.”
Kathy Porter, chairwoman of the club, enjoyed reading Devil in the Grove. “Because of states like Alabama and Mississippi, Florida has gone under the radar when it comes to race crimes. To find out what happened in our own backyard is quite interesting and disturbing at the same time.”