Chapter ?, Wrestling With Race, Part 4

Stranger in a strange land, to quote Heinlein*

Responding to some tiny disciplinary problems that arose at my junior high school in Miami when I was 13 and worried lest I follow my sister’s lead and marry a no-good Yankee Catholic Marine from the Opa-Locka airbase, my parents decided to partially return to their roots and move us to rural Central Florida. They chose Groveland probably because that was the best deal they could find on a small orange grove, which my father hoped would support us and free him from the danger, dirt and grime that went with his occupation. It was a forlorn hope, since we were wiped out by a hard freeze the first year and my dad had to take another machinist job 40 miles away in Lakeland, anyway.

In Groveland, in 1956, African-Americans lived in a swampy area just south of the high school on the other side of a field fence topped by barbed wire. It was what was called, though I found it hard to believe, “the quarters,” preserving, I assume, the language of slavery. Some people also called it Stucky Still, but that was a much less popular name than the quarters. We were forbidden to go near the fence and forbidden to go through the quarters for any reason. If segregation was, for the most part, invisible to white people in Groveland (as opposed to Miami, where you saw it on buses and drinking fountains), there was no way not to see it when you looked at that fence.

The fence between the white Groveland school complex and Stucky Still was still there in the 1970s, when I took this picture, but the barbed wire was gone and there was now a gate in it. The basketball court was new to me. When I was a student, you looked across a green field to the fence and no one went as near it as this court is.

The fence between the white Groveland school complex and Stucky Still was still there in the 1970s, when I took this picture, but the barbed wire was gone and there was now a gate in it, presumably to allow black children easy access to the now-integrated schools. The basketball court was new to me. When I was a student, you looked across a green field to the fence and no one went as near it as this court is.

So stark was segregation that the fence actually went between the grounds of the black school and the white schools. You could look right over it at a two or three-room featureless cinderblock rectangle of an elementary school for the black children, just on the other side of the fence from our elementary and high school complex, complete with playgrounds, playing fields, an auditorium, a cafeteria and trees. You could do it, though I doubt that anyone ever did do it but me, when no one was around. I cannot remember ever seeing any children there.

I was told, when I was rash enough to ask, that it went to the sixth-grade, after which time any black children wishing to continue their education would face a 40-mile round trip school bus ride to Leesburg, where there was a black junior high and high school. I learned very quickly not to say anything about that situation, because it would make me very unpopular and perhaps even put me in danger. As far as I could tell, I was the only person in the high school that thought about it or cared about it.

I thought I had no illusions about what I was getting into. I was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. My sister had seen a magazine article about how Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall had been getting re-elected for some years by shooting black men in his charge in the back, then telling people “oh, they were trying to get away.” (I have been unable to locate this article.) That was apparently his platform, bragging about how he “never let a nigger get away.” She had warned me to keep my integrationist leanings to myself. I started reading newspapers early on but, I had not seen the newspaper reports of the specific event that had made my hometown so famous when I was seven.

That was how much I knew when we arrived in Groveland in 1956. But, it turns out that I did, in fact, have illusions and absolutely no sense of how bad it had been and still was. Only seven years before my arrival, there had been a civil rights case centered around McCall that involved alleged rape, attempted lynching, actual murder, torture-forced confessions, riots, arson and the national guard. Legal moves in the case were still taking place while I attended Groveland High School and were not entirely completed until eight years after I graduated. It came to be known as the case of the Groveland Four.**

It was only late in my life that I learned that not only was the sheriff of Lake County a murdering KKK bigot, but Groveland itself had been the center of what Supreme Court Justice and civil rights leader, Thurgood Marshall, called the “worst case of injustice and whitewash I have ever come across” which, considering the length and depth of his career, was no trivial statement.1 I had moved to a county that, according to Gilbert King’s account of the FBI investigation, was “controlled… by an embittered contingent of the Ku Klux Klan intent upon codifying a racial caste system, through violent means if necessary….”2 I was, in King’s words, “south of the South” in terms of racial hatred,  in a KKK-controlled county in the state that recorded “a higher number of lynchings” and registered “more members of the Ku Klux Klan than any other state in the South”3  in the 1940s and before that had held the record, hands down:

From 1882 to 1930, Florida recorded more lynchings of black people (266) than any other state, and from 1900 to 1930, had a per capita lynching rate twice that of Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana…. by World War II, Florida is still ranked high among the most violent states in the South” 4

Although I never heard this case mentioned until I got to Florida State University in 1961 and then I only heard the name, not the details, it is relevant here in that it indicates the depth of the racism inherent in the culture around me at my high school and, perhaps, explains the degree of nastiness that characterized some of my own experiences in high school, from the humiliating water ski party described in Chapter One, to the black eye I wore to the Junior prom from running into a sliding glass door that may or may not have been maliciously closed on purpose specifically to nail me. It may also explain the following story, which always seemed a bit strange to me until I learned of the Groveland Four case.

Sometime in my sophomore year or early in my junior year, a drive-in restaurant opened up on the highway that was also the main street. It was at the far end of town, beyond the other businesses, where it was backed up against the fence demarcating the quarters. It became a bit of an after-school hangout, partially replacing the drug store in that function, and it certainly became a date night hangout. It was a bit of a walk from the high school through downtown and down the highway, but I realized that it would be a much shorter trip if you could cut diagonally through the colored section.

I normally rode the school bus home but was allowed a day or two a week when I could wait for my father to come through on his way home from his job in Lakeland and ride home with him. This allowed me to participate in after school activities. One day, I got another girl, also new in town, and therefore less trained in local taboos, to go with me to see what would happen if we climbed through the fence (we were both small and skinny enough to do that without damaging either ourselves or the fence) and take a shortcut through the colored section to the drive-in. I billed it to her as a clever way to beat everyone else there after school but it was, in fact, another one of my social experiments.

About halfway, as I was taking the opportunity to see just exactly what the area looked like, in the same way that I had done so in Miami to get a look at Liberty City, a black woman came out onto her rickety front porch and began yelling at us, “Hey, you girls, whatch ya’ll think you’re doing? You can’t be in here.” I yelled back,”We’re just going to the drive-in. I thought this would be shorter.” She yelled back, “You can’t do that. You can’t do that. Get on outta here now and don’t come back.” I was startled at the angry and near-frantic sound in her voice.

We giggled and took off running, but it was only after learning the whole story of what had happened in Groveland that I realized just how antsy all the black people must have been. I had thought of the shortcut as a bit of an experiment and had presented it to the other girl as a bit of a lark but neither of us had had any conception, at the time, of the level of the racial tension that must have existed. Learning about the “Groveland Four” set the story into a context that explained, after more than 50 years, the vehemence of the black woman who yelled at us from her door. She had probably been there when a white mob burned down houses in her neighborhood, or perhaps, for all I know, one had been her house or she was a relative of the member of the Groveland Four who had lived there.

The story, greatly summarized here from King’s excellent book, is that in 1949, a young married couple named Willie and Norma Padgett went drinking and dancing in Clermont, a few miles from Groveland. On the way home by a circuitous route, experiencing car trouble, they pulled over into a dirt side road and got stuck. There the versions of the story diverge. The Padgetts claimed that four young black men knocked Willie unconscious, kidnapped Norma, drove her down the road and raped her.

NormaPadgettlr

Norma Padgett testifying at the trial of the Groveland Four.

Two of the men later arrested, well-known residents of Groveland, claimed that they had stopped to help, had been verbally abused by Willie when they could not unstick or start the car, had defended themselves verbally and then left. Two others, who apparently had no relationship at all to the alleged crime, were nevertheless accused.5 One left the area that night, for apparently unrelated reasons, and was later shot in northern Florida by a posse that included Willis McCall.6 The other was arrested in Groveland and held, along with the first two, in the county jail in Tavares.7

Hearing the news of Norma’s alleged rape from Willie, a 25-car mob formed in Groveland and drove to Tavares to lynch the accused men.8 Meanwhile, Sheriff McCall and his deputies were torturing the three men, one by one, in the basement of the courthouse, seeking confessions.9 Two confessed, the third did not. Hearing of the mob approaching, McCall whisked two of the men away from the jail to  Raiford.10 The third sweated it out as McCall allowed the leaders of the mob to search the jail for the two Groveland residents they knew about.11 Unable to find them, the mob then returned to Groveland, shot up a black business, shot into several black homes and burned down some houses, including the family home of one of the suspects. 12 By then, hundreds of black people had fled the Groveland area.13  In subsequent days, KKK members flooded the streets of Groveland, coming from all over Florida and out-of-state. McCall, himself closely allied with the KKK,14 was forced to call in the National Guard to control them.15

One of the streets near Groveland High School, looking much more peaceful than it likely did after the riot in 1949.

One of the streets near Groveland High School, looking much more peaceful than it likely did after the riot in 1949.

The NAACP, at Marshall’s urging, defended the three remaining suspects at their trial, where they were convicted and sentenced to death.16 Mercy was recommended for the youngest one, who was then sentenced to life. The NAACP appealed the two death sentences. The verdict was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court and a new trial ordered.17 While transporting the two defendants from Raiford to Tavares for the new trial, McCall drove into the woods, ordered the men out of the car, shot them dead, roughed himself up, called for help and then claimed to the dozens of people who showed up that the prisoners had been trying to escape and had attacked him. By sheer luck and the growing suspicion of McCall on the part of the prosecutor, who was among the crowd at the scene, one of the defendants, who had been playing dead in spite of three gunshot wounds, was discovered to still be breathing,18 which is the only way we know their side of the story.

This defendant, after recovering sufficiently, was tried with Marshall himself as defense attorney, reconvicted and once more sentenced to death.19 The NAACP then focused on getting the death sentence commuted to life. Marshall, through a miracle of timing, was able to delay the execution until two successive governors, both “former” KKK members, were replaced by a less bigoted governor, who commuted the death sentence.20 Both of the remaining Groveland Four were eventually paroled. The one who had been shot died a year after his parole, in Lake County, of allegedly natural causes.21 The youngest one lived to be an old man.22 Willis McCall was re-elected sheriff of Lake County until 1972.23

It was not until I researched Willis McCall in preparation for writing this book that I discovered how close I was to this seminal civil rights case, which triggered the first assassination of a civil rights leader, Henry T. Moore.24  When the mob drove from Groveland to Tavares, they surely passed within 50 feet of where my bed would be seven years later, in our house by the highway to Tavares.

As a sophomore at Groveland High School, I am sitting on my bed in our house on the road to Tavares. About 40 feet from the window behind me is the road that carried the lynch mob eight years earlier.

As a sophomore at Groveland High School, I am sitting on my bed in our house on the road to Tavares. About 40 feet from the window behind me is the road that carried the lynch mob eight years earlier.

Norma Padgett was either the sister-in-law, the aunt, or the wife of a cousin of the most popular boy in my class, Morgan “Bubba” Padgett, who figured peripherally in my sexual education. I have a very dim memory of having been told when I first arrived, in whispers, never to ask Morgan anything about his family because something terrible had happened to his family when he was a little boy. Now I marvel that it is his family that something terrible is thought to have happened to, not the families of the Groveland Four.

The leader of the mob, Flowers Cockcroft, was likely the father of a close friend of mine, also in my class. I believe I can remember us teasing her about her father’s name. I worked for two of the families mentioned by King, the Kimbroughs and the Edges. The boyfriend of one of the sisters whose family I lived with as a senior shared a family name, Merritt, with one of the KKK night riders intimidating residents from assisting the FBI.25 Curtis Merritt could easily have been Bernie’s big brother.

It was gut-wrenching to recognize so many family names in King’s book and to know the geography so intimately that I can almost believe that I know exactly where the dirt road is that was the scene of the initial beating of one of the suspects. When I foolishly cut across the colored section of town and was yelled at for it, I remember noticing the remains of burned-out houses. They were surely the ones burned down by the mob.

Realizing that King did not mention all of the names of all of the KKK members in Groveland and knowing only too well what a tight-knit community Groveland was, I have to assume that there were many more KKK members around me when I lived there than the ones he named in his book. It is entirely possible that the fathers in the houses where I lived as a junior and a senior participated in the riots, perhaps even the brother of my best friend, Sarah, who also participated peripherally in my sexual education. It is entirely possible that I went to church with them, was taught by them, dated them and cheered for them when I was a cheerleader. The KKK recruits young.

It scares me now to think how oblivious I was. In terms of my own ability to survive at all at my high school, it is probably a good thing that I did not realize how bad it was. Otherwise, my fear of becoming known as a “nigger-lover” might have made my high school days even more painful than they actually were.  A white lawyer quoted in King’s book expresses the ambiance well. In refusing to defend the Groveland Four on behalf of the NAACP, he says to the black NAACP lawyer, “You know, Franklin, those clay-eating crackers down there in Lake County would just as soon stand off and shoot me with a high power rifle as they would you.”26

It is a measure of the degree to which segregation influences culture that in the four years I lived in Groveland, including in the very households of lifetime Groveland residents, no one ever told me the story of the Groveland Four. Even my two closest friends, who I believed told me everything, as I told them everything, never referred to it in any way. That the children had to have been to some degree aware of the turmoil is indicated by King when he describes a trip made by Mrs. Flowers Cockcroft to take an undercover investigator to visit the Padgett family in their home outside Groveland. In the backseat of the car were the small Cockcroft children, probably including one who would later be my high school friend.27  

It is hard to know the motivation for keeping such a world-shaking event such a deep secret. I thought we knew everything about each other. We knew who was and was not a virgin. We knew which fathers had been sexually inappropriate with their daughters. We knew the details of everyone’s medical conditions. We knew which teacher kept a pint of bourbon in the left hand drawer of her desk. But, through all the slumber parties, all the hours-long bus rides from away games wherein we passed the time through conversation, all the church testimonials at revival meetings where people confessed publicly to pretty much every other sin, no one ever made any reference to what must have seemed catastrophic at the time. In the annals of collective compartmentalization, this example must be one of the most impressive.

Perhaps it was to protect me, just because they knew how I would react. Perhaps it was just another way to exclude me. I would like to think that perhaps my friends were ashamed to be the children and younger siblings of the KKK, but that one is pretty far-fetched. I was always puzzled and hurt by the importance that was placed on how long any particular student had lived in Groveland. Those who had always been there had a million ways to exclude new arrivals. That emphasis continued for the rest of our lives. When the committee organizing the 50th reunion of my class succeeded in locating me and sent me a questionnaire to elicit information for the booklet accompanying the reunion, the question was still there. Did you attend Groveland schools from first grade on?

I always attributed this cliquishness to the standard snobbery of small-town high schools, but now that I know what happened to my classmates when they were in the first grade, and I realize how amazingly secretive they were about it, I assume that snobbishness in Groveland incorporated an extra layer of history. It seems possible to me that the question is not really did you attend Groveland schools since the first grade, but were you here when our town was an international focus of shame? Were you here when the lynch mob was organized on the grounds of the high school? Did you see the hundreds of KKK members with shotguns riding down Main Street?

Whereas I cannot claim to have been an activist in high school and I always attempted to follow my sister’s advice to keep my mouth shut, it is very likely that my sympathies were suspected from the kinds of questions I asked in Sunday School, my preference for black music and chance remarks I may have made in all innocence, as well as physical reactions of disgust to racism displayed in my presence that I have never been able to conceal. I will never know how much my classmates knew about me and my sympathies for black people, nor will I ever know if any such knowledge was a factor in the misery of my high school days.What I do know is that I dodged a bullet when I turned down the proposal I got on Senior Prom night from someone who never would have left Groveland. Omigod. I might have spent my life there.

*Heinlein, Robert. Stranger in a Strange Land.1961.

© Jentri Anders, 2016

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