Story and photography by James Dale
It’s still dark when Gilbert King pulls up to The Mason Jar diner outside of Umatilla in Lake County, Florida. He’s here for the big, flaky biscuits smothered in southern gravy, of course.
But he’s also here to listen and learn. Inside the greasy spoon, at a long table etched deeply with the history of the surrounding area, sits Evvie Griffin, Lake County’s former sheriff. Comfortably ensconced at the head of the open room, Griffin holds court here every Sunday, greeting diners who file by on the way to and from chicken-fried breakfasts with a tip of his gray Stetson hat.
King stands apart in this crowd, yet blends in easily with visitors who come and go at the table as if on a prearranged timeline – courtiers with Hatfield-and-McCoy beards draped over camouflage shirts who’ve come to sit a spell and check in with the old lawman. Over the next two hours, King will listen and nudge, picking up on a name, filing away a reference, making mental note of some small bit of a bigger something that might tie back to a note he remembers from a box of faded documents he saw a month ago in a dusty basement archive.
He’s engaging in small talk, knowing that big clues often lurk in tiny details. For the 2013 Pulitzer winner, this is just another early morning over coffee out on a rural highway north of Orlando. To craft his next story, this quiet, unobtrusive guy from some big city up north is here with his antenna up, his radar set to wide-sweep. If he hears something of interest, he’ll gingerly steer the discussion to lead where he wants it to go – where he hopes it will go. It helps that the crowd around the table likes him. Really likes him.
“I’ve been told that I have a demeanor, or a face, or whatever it is that makes people feel comfortable talking to me,” King says. “I do know that I’m an interested and empathetic listener, so maybe that just comes across,” he says. The people around this table want to be a part of what he’s writing, even if it means dredging up a dark chapter in the history of a region best known for singer Anita Bryant’s bright and chirpy “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.”
With Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, King rocked the literary world with a tightly researched look at a major figure in American history. It gives the backstory behind America’s first black Supreme Court justice and leading pioneer in the civil rights movement. The story takes place here in Lake County, and it tells a tale that reads as much like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as it does any dry volume on justice.
In short, King’s Groveland story draws from a long history of black narrative in the Deep South. It’s a tale we’ve heard before: white woman falsely accuses black men of rape. White mobs burn and pillage. Innocent young men die. And a county little changed in many ways from antebellum times puts its head on the pillow and goes back to sleep. As a young lawyer for the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall helped to change all that. Through his gripping narrative of a little-known story, King shows us how.
Devil in the Grove develops the persona of the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice by letting us follow along on a number of pre-Civil Rights Era cases involving judicial travesties in the Jim Crow South. We’re in Marshall’s pocket as he rides the segregated rails from Texas to Tennessee, often sharing swigs of whiskey with porters in the baggage car. The story follows Marshall to the town of Groveland, in Lake County, where in 1949, 17-year-old Norma Padgett pointed an accusatory finger at “The Groveland Four.”
Railroaded through a good old boy system by Sheriff Willis McCall – Evvie Griffin’s predecessor – three of the four wound up dead, and the fourth ended up in prison. Although the Groveland Boys have now been officially exonerated – largely due to King’s book – the story made little news at the time. More than a decade later it was all but forgotten, buried against a Civil Rights backdrop dominated by events in Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham. It lay dormant. Until King sniffed a story in the late 2000s.
“I’ve always been attracted to stories about the underdog,” King says. “I have this part of me that genuinely hates injustice and it’s always my aim to solve an unsolved mystery, or get to the truth of a crime that’s been covered up. That might sound overly ambitious and even naïve, but I have to think that’s possible when I start a project.”
King developed the Groveland story by driving the county’s dusty farm roads and rural lanes, home to Florida’s once-thriving orange industry and arguably one of the most backwoods backwaters in America. He learned about the story while working on a previous book, The Execution of Willie Francis.
Piqued by the enormity of the Groveland coverup, King set up shop in the Sunshine State and began four years of diving headfirst into long forgotten records. He scouted out central characters like Griffin, and connected disjointed facts and clues. In the end, he produced both a great narrative and justice for the wronged.
To research the book, King played detective. A really, really nice detective. Smiles and gentle persistence gained him access to a treasure trove of previously unopened files – many in Marshall’s own hand – from the archives of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. He also dug into the FBI’s unfiltered files on the Groveland investigation. “It’s amazing what witnesses will say once they think they’re off the record,” he says. With all this detailed information, King says his riveting page-turner practically wrote itself. In fact, his book contains nearly 70 pages of detailed notes and acknowledgements.
“I never trained as a journalist, so I have no idea what techniques to use when I gather information,” the author says, peering out from beneath the brim of a faded cap. “I’m sincerely non-judgmental, and I don’t think you can fake those things. But I’m always surprised about the intimate things people will tell me, from cab drivers, to waitresses, to the person sitting next to me on a plane.”
Evvie Griffin sits back and begins casting his mind back through time to spill dates, names and places. Many of the stories he shares are downright funny – like the time he flew a corpse from Lake County to a far-off mortuary in his private plane. All chuckle as he describes how he repurposed the dead guys arms to hold his map. The old man, who proudly shares that he lives in the very room where he was born 88 years ago, has trod a long and colorful road.
King’s own path to the Pulitzer was as meandering as the backcountry lanes of Lake County. After growing up in New York state, he attended the University of South Florida, where he came up two math credits short of graduating. From there, he worked as a freelance writer in New York City, writing articles for an assortment of magazines and newspapers. Along the way, he continued to develop his lifelong love of photography and fine-tuned his creative chops by jumping in on open mic nights at comedy clubs. “Learning how to deliver a punch line helped me to be a better writer,” he says. “You get one shot, so you drive to the point.”
After landing a job as assistant to the president of Macmillan Publishing, King began accepting photo assignments for fashion magazines including Vogue, Glamour, Modern Bride, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. “I think photography is a very good way to learn to tell stories,” he says. “You work to make sure every frame has a beginning, middle and end and, on the whole, you’re making sure that a strong photo says everything.”
But writing always had a place in the author’s repertoire, and he found himself writing an ongoing history column for the Smithsonian Magazine and occasional features for The New York Times and The Washington Post. Then came an opportunity to shoot photographs for a coffee table book on golf antiques (King is an avid golfer), which he was asked to pen when the writer withdrew from the project. Other books followed, culminating in his two major works on injustices in the pre-civil rights era Deep South.
In writing, King found his natural niche as an investigator. “When I start working on a book, I never think of myself as a writer,” he says. “I see myself as a character – usually this relentless investigator who travels back to the past for one purpose only: to find out what happened and to deliver the story. Once I’ve solved the case, then I put on my writer’s hat and attempt to write the complete and definitive account.” The great thing about writing narrative nonfiction, according to King, is that storytelling always comes to the forefront. “The truth is, you may never get to the truth, or officially solve a case, he says. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t still tell a great story along the way.”
Griffin first met King at a book signing, placing a copy of Devil in the Grove on the table for an autograph before saying, “You done a good job with this, but there’s other stories here to tell.” Thus began the ritual of Sunday morning biscuits and gravy. With that, King was off and rolling onto the next book project.
Over two days, King puts his rental car through the paces, visiting every spot of major importance to the Groveland story. He visits Minneola, Montverde and Mascotte, and then heads north to Leesburg, Fruitland Park and Silver City, pointing out interesting landmarks.
In Tavares, he pulls up to the courthouse where Sheriff McCall allegedly threw a female suspect to her death out a second floor window. The building’s basement still features the overhead pipes where deputies hoisted and beat two of the Groveland victims with lead-filled hoses.
He drives to Eustis, Umatilla and Altoona – quiet towns once surrounded by vast orchards now barren from “greening,” a blight that’s taken down the once-mighty citrus industry. On back roads lined with ancient moss-laden oaks, King stops at out-of-the-way spots, pointing out where the county’s white mobs and Ku Klux Klansmen rousted whole communities of blacks with gunshots and torches.
At one quiet crossroads, King points off in three directions, citing a trio of major events – including the Groveland case – that all wound up eventually at the U.S. Supreme Court. “There’s probably no other place in America where so much legal history happened within 100 yards,” he says. He drives slowly past an unpaved lane next to an abandoned citrus pickers camp, not stopping. Several of the characters central to his story still live in Lake County, and he is not welcome. He’s been told to let sleeping dogs lie. His story is accepted by many, but not all.
King received death threats prior to a recent speaking engagement held in Groveland to officially exonerate the Groveland Boys. “No need for you to worry about anything,” a member of the planning team told him. “Someone from the sheriff’s department will be here to keep things orderly.” A comforting thought; he’ll be watched over by the same office his book accuses of getting away with murder.
In Mount Dora, King stops at Barrel of Books and Games bookstore, where a stack of Devil in the Grove sits prominently in the window. Crissy Stile, the store’s owner, greets him with a hug. For the past two years, he’s been a frequent visitor at this quaint independent bookseller, signing copies of his book and talking with readers who are suddenly, as a group, captivated by a story that had once faded into history.
“People come in to talk about the book all the time,” Stile says. “They read the names and places and it’s all around them and they’re fascinated to know that something like this happened in their backyards.”
If readers of Devil in the Grove are impressed with King’s easy telling of a fact-rich tale, his next book promises to be equally important. Doing research for the book pointed to other Lake County secrets. So he’s digging up the dirt, and putting on the miles.
He’s found another story. So at the urging of friend and fellow author Erik Larson, King packed up his French bulldog Louis and headed to a cabin in upstate New York to spend a week cranking out an 80-page book proposal, something some Pulitzer winners might forego. “By the time I was done with that, I knew I had a good story. I knew it was time to dive in,” King says.
How does a writer know when he has enough? That’s not easy, says King. “I never think I have enough while I’m researching, but once I start writing, it quickly becomes apparent that I have more than enough to tell the story.”
Two hours after King downs his last cup of coffee, Griffin is still talking. He takes long, thoughtful pauses, followed by brief, sharp bits of detail, as if the old sheriff is filtering what to share. King has spent two years nursing this relationship, building trust, proving himself to be a trusted and reliable outlet for Lake County’s deepest secrets.
The sun is up and most of the early morning crowd has slopped up its breakfast and moved on. Stacks of plates with smears of biscuits and butter line Griffin’s table. The old man squints through his glasses and grins as he points down to his shiny sheriff’s badge embedded in the table beneath a quarter-inch of polyurethane varnish. Next to the badge, carved by penknife into the old oak table is the name Willis McCall. In a way, he’s done his own part to amend the narrative of Lake County.
As King, the mild-mannered writer from New York who came to Lake County to drive the back roads and do the hard work of shedding light on an injustice steps away from the table, Griffin leans forward and offers his thoughts on a man he now considers a friend.
“He got the story right,” Griffin says. “I trust him. He’s good people.”
As for King, the clues of the morning only mean more snooping, more asking, more digging, more bringing together disjointed pieces of a puzzle he doesn’t yet fully see. He pushes up his Benjamin Franklin glasses and pulls down his faded baseball cap.
And grabs a coffee to go.
Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America is being developed into a motion picture.