Six decades later, Carol Greenlee can still remember visiting her father when she was a young girl.
“I’m the child that went to the prison one Sunday with my mother, and my daddy kissed me on the head and said, ‘Don’t bring her back no more. It’s too hard,’ ” Greenlee, now 67, said Tuesday. “And I didn’t see him no more until I was 12 years old.”
It was not until she was 40 that the younger Greenlee would work up the courage to ask her father what happened months before she was born that put him behind bars.
Charles Greenlee was one of four black men accused of raping a white woman near Groveland in 1949, one of two men to survive manhunts and discredited trials that followed, and the only one to live long after his time in prison had ended.
On Tuesday, the Florida House voted to formally apologize for the prosecution and persecution of the “Groveland Four” — Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas. Their story, long neglected, is now a step away from being formally recognized by the Legislature. The Senate is expected to adopt the apology soon.
“This is a glorious day,” Carol Greenlee said Tuesday, struggling for composure as she spoke with lawmakers moments before the vote. “And still today, the tears are hard to hold back. But today, the tears are tears of joy. And I want to thank all of you, all of you, for releasing my family from prison.”
She was joined at an event in the Capitol by the legislation’s sponsors, other family members of the victims, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and authors and petition writers who helped make the apology possible.
The legislation would also ask Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to quickly consider posthumous pardons for the men.
“Justice was delayed, but it was never denied,” said Carol Greenlee’s brother, Thomas, who was born 15 years after the alleged rape. “It was bound to come.”
The incident began in 1949, when a 17-year-old woman and her husband claimed that the four men raped her near Groveland in Lake County. Three of the men were tortured until two confessed to the crime.
Thomas, who initially escaped, was killed in Madison County after a manhunt. The other three men were convicted, with Greenlee receiving a life sentence and Irvin and Shepherd condemned to death.
An appeal of Irvin and Shepherd’s convictions, spearheaded by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, prompted the high court to overturn the verdict in 1951. Irvin and Shepherd were shot several months later, purportedly in self-defense, by Sheriff Willis McCall and a deputy. Shepherd was killed.
After Irvin was convicted and sentenced to death again, Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died two years later. Greenlee, who was paroled in 1962, died in 2012.
Even those who sponsored the apology acknowledged that it could only go so far.
“The memories can’t be erased, the pain they’ve endured can’t be fixed, but today we have an opportunity to provide closure to these families in the form of an apology,” said Rep. Bobby DuBose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the House proposal (HCR 631).
Gilbert King — whose book about the case, “Devil in the Grove,” won the Pulitzer Prize — said the apology “marks a willingness to recognize and confront a grave injustice.”
“Sadly, for the families of the Groveland boys, this bill cannot alter the tragic course of history,” King said. “But it does show how we as Americans can respond to our past, to acknowledge a shameful part of our history and to confront it rather than sweeping it under the rug and moving on without conversation.”
For Carol Greenlee, the apology is still profound. She said that family members can be proud of their name, not worrying about the shame that came with the conviction — however tainted it was.
“Today, I feel free,” she said. “I feel like I can talk about it.”
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