After helping usher in formal state apologies, pardons, and exonerations for injustices leveled on the Groveland Four more than 70 years ago, Rep. Geraldine Thompson hopes to see Florida pay back a little to make up for the legacy.
Thompson, the Orlando Democrat who has been a leader in the eight-year crusade to clear the names of the four young Black men falsely accused of raping a White woman in 1949 in one of the darker chapters of Florida’s Jim Crow era, is proposing legislation creating scholarships and business loans in their names.
House Bill 1133, which Thompson introduced Monday, would create up to 50 college scholarships of up to $6,100 a year toward tuition and fees, which could be awarded to descendants of the Groveland Four and to other students from Groveland, the Lake County town where the injustice began and echoed for decades among Black residents of the area.
HB 1133 also creates a new carve-out in the state’s Black business enterprise loans program to make some low-interest loans specifically available for Black-owned businesses in Groveland.
“This is a means of repairing to some extent, what happened at the hands of elected officials in 1949 and 1951,” Thompson said.
In a case that quickly became blatant railroading and inevitably turned into a racist travesty of the era, Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee, and Walter Irvin were charged in 1949 with raping a woman. Thomas and Shepherd were killed before they could go to trial. Greenlee and Irvin were convicted in 1951 and spent decades in prison.
Their ordeal had been the point of a legendary although failed defense of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in the 1950s, the topic of two investigative books, a 2017 Florida Legislature apology, and the center of 2019 Florida Cabinet pardons.
This past fall, a new Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation led Lake County State Attorney Bill Gladson to seek full, posthumous exonerations of the four. In November, 5th Circuit Judge Heidi Davis granted them.
“I’ve been in touch with members of the families from the very outset, when I first introduced legislation in 2014,” proposing the Legislature’s apology, which came three years later, Thompson said. “While an apology from the state of Florida is good, while a pardon is a step in the right direction, and now exoneration, they feel, as I do, that there ought to be some sort of reparation, some means to make them whole for what happened to their family members.”
There is precedent. Similar scholarship programs were set up for descendants of the racial massacres in the 1920s in Black communities in Ocoee and the former town of Rosewood. The Ocoee program was approved last year, championed by Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy.
Thompson is running to replace Bracy in representing Senate District 11. Bracy is term-limited and running for Congress. Democratic Rep. Kamia Brown of Ocoee also is running for that SD 11 seat.