Deceased Nashville businessman Charles L. Greenlee receives full
pardon 70 years after being wrongfully accused of rape in Florida
By Cynthia Anderson
NASHVILLE, TN — Carol Greenlee finally has justice for her father. Nearly 70 years ago, Charles L. Greenlee was one of four black men wrongly convicted by an all-white jury of raping a white women in Lake County, FL.
The case became known as the Groveland Four (Charles L. Greenlee, Walter Lee Irvin, Samuel Shephard and Earnest Thomas) and has received national attention in recent years inspiring a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and becoming known as one of Florida’s most grave injustices in the Jim Crow South.
On January 11, Florida’s clemency board voted to posthumously pardon all four men.
“It was like a load had been lifted…the chains had been broken… it was like the door just swung open from being in a terrible nightmare,” said Greenlee, who lives in the Nashville area with her family. “Finally, after all of these years of struggling and wondering whether or not it would ever happen, a vote was taken and his name cleared.”
In 1949, 16-year-old Charles L. Greenlee, who had a child on the way, was in Groveland, FL. looking for work. Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old white woman, said she and her husband had been attacked by four young black men who had taken her away and raped her while the couple’s car was stalled.
Charles L. Greenlee was picked up at the rail depot while waiting for his friend Ernest Thomas who had convinced Greenlee there were plenty of jobs in Groveland. He was represented by a young Thurgood Marshall and found guilty of the crime. Greenlee served 10 years in jail. After his release, Greenlee moved to Nashville and worked hard to put the past behind him.
He started his own business, Nashville Maintenance Systems Inc., an HVAC and refrigeration business on 44th Avenue North, which he ran for more than 40 years. He also had worked for K Gardner & Son Funeral Home on Jefferson Street and Harvey’s department store in Nashville.
Greenlee kept a low profile while raising his family in the Nashville community. He passed away in 2012 at age 78.
“He wouldn’t talk about it,” Greenlee said remembering that her father urged her not to pursue the case. “He wanted me to leave it alone.”
But Carol Greenlee could not let it go. She had two goals: let the world know that her father was innocent, and receive a pardon for him and the other men who were murdered and falsely convicted.
She worked for years to clear his name, but the effort began to pick up steam four years ago when she was contacted by University of Florida student Josh Venkataraman.
Venkataraman had read “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” the Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Groveland Four, and he wanted to help the men receive a pardon. A petition started on change.org received 10,000 signatures.
Over the years, the case spurred several books and a PBS documentary. The state of Florida issued a formal apology in 2017, but the final justice came last week when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a full pardon.
“It means that my nieces, nephews, my son, my brothers, all family members, can hold their head up and not have this cloud hanging over their head that their relative was convicted of a rape, you know that is the gravest crime,” Greenlee said. “That doesn’t totally relieve the pain but it wakes you up from a nightmare and maybe by telling the story it won’t happen again. And it fills a hole in my life that the world knows that my father and the other three black men are innocent.”
Greenlee said she hopes the story of the Groveland Four will encourage those fighting against injustice not to give up.
“The struggle goes on and we can’t quit,” Greenlee said. “We can’t let one victory write the whole story for everybody because there are still other stories out there. I don’t care how long it takes, don’t quit. Keep the faith. Daddy would say, ‘get tired and rest if you may, but just don’t quit.’”