This book will take you through my incredible four year quest for justice for The Groveland Four and teach you how to pursue your own causes, whatever they may be. It is a primer for positive action, a journey through Florida’s past as well as its future. Some of the things you will learn: everything takes more time than you think, nothing ever goes according to plan, help can come from unexpected places, time is on your side, everyone is connected to everyone else, you can reach your tipping point for success and not even realize it, your goals can change along the way, and flexibility is key. Let’s get started, shall we?
FAMOUS PEOPLE AT A PARTY
I was by far the youngest person at the party and the one with the shortest bio. It was as if I’d wandered into a parallel universe, one where important people asked my opinion on things of gravity. I was Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris when he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald and Picasso–in a word, awestruck. But there I was, hobnobbing with famous authors as if I belonged.
I was a recent arrival to New York City, a college graduate starting his first job at a niche advertising agency. My life up to that point had been on a different plane entirely—happy hour after work with friends, same day theatre tickets, a pick-up basketball game, waiting for the F train, home decor from Target, and a slice of pizza from any establishment claiming to be Original Ray’s, never eaten with a fork and knife because I didn’t want to be laughed out of town.
Yet, on that particular day I was ten blocks from home and a world away, looking down at the glittering jewel-box of Manhattan from the forty-second floor of a beautiful apartment. I was petting a friendly dog named Louis and watching famous people play a game of Euchre while I soaked up the ambiance. I should have felt awkward but I didn’t. I had brought a six-pack of Coney Island beer because I wanted to bring a good IPA but the host had it all covered with amazing barbecue and an excellent selection of wine and beer. At least I didn’t come empty-handed.
Surrounded by Pulitzer Prize winning authors and literary agents, I had no idea what to talk about. Our esteemed host, Gilbert King, had introduced me to the other guests like I was a VIP. Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son, loomed as a larger-than-life figure and I watched him from a distance. Before I knew it, he and Gilbert had pulled me into the game and were trying to teach me how to play. I never quite caught on but I’ll never forget how I felt that night, mingling with famous authors, on a first name basis with politicians and reporters, admiring the city from on high. And it all started with a book.
“Chase down your passion like it’s the last bus of the night.” Terri Guillemets
The most important question to ask yourself is: Why do I want to take on this project? Noblesse oblige? A desire to help the less fortunate? Both are good reasons, but not good enough. A cause may be worth fighting for but if it’s not causing you pain to think about it, if it’s not burrowing under your skin to take up residence in your heart and mind, it’s not for you. You can’t look for a cause, it has to find you.
My project found me in early 2015, my junior year at the University of Florida. I was driving back to Gainesville from Orlando after a weekend trip when I saw a sign
on the highway. It wasn’t a sign from God but an actual sign with one word on it: “Groveland”. Six months earlier that sign would have meant nothing to me but, in that moment, it opened my eyes to the past, to a tragedy that still echoed through the years. Seeing that sign made Groveland become a tangible place, a place where terrible things had happened. In 1949, where a white woman had falsely accused four young black men of rape and sparked a powder keg of racial upheaval, torture, murder, and hatred in a small town.
I’d recently read a book about it for my American History class: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of the New America. The author, Gilbert King, had won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. I hadn’t really thought about the book much besides the fact that it was a good read, it was just another assignment. Now I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The fact that these guys were my age meant it could have been me. They were so young and they all had alibis, but it didn’t matter. The fact that I had no idea this happened until I read the book and that it was so close to home, in places I recognized, made me realize this was real. It wasn’t just a story anymore. Nothing was right about this case and I wanted–I needed–to do something to help.
As a twenty-one year old college student with no connections and no experience, I wondered what I could do about this injustice from more than sixty years ago. I was a telecommunications major with an interest in film-making so my first impulse was to create a documentary, but then I learned one had already been made. What did people do when they wanted change? They started a petition, of course. I’d signed a few petitions since turning eighteen but had never started one of my own. Honestly, I’d never done anything in the social justice arena before. Since fortune favors the bold I decided to contact the author, Gilbert King. To my surprise he responded to my email. He was kind and gracious and quite humble for someone with a Pulitzer Prize on the shelf. If it were me, I’d be working that beauty into every conversation. Take out the garbage? Sorry, no can do. I’m busy polishing my Pulitzer right now.
Gilbert appreciated my desire to help but told me a petition had been attempted before. I decided to go for it anyway. I couldn’t give up before I started, right? Besides, if it were easy, the problem would have been solved a long time ago. I had to try. But there was someone I needed to find first, the woman who swore she would never stop until her father’s name was cleared. I needed to find Carol Greenlee.
Thank you, Barbara & Josh Venkataraman
About the authors
Barbara Venkataraman is an attorney and mediator specializing in family law and debt collection.
She is the author of the award-winning Jamie Quinn Cozy Mystery series, as well as “Teatime with Mrs. Grammar Person”, and three books of humorous essays: “I’m Not Talking about You, Of Course”; “A Trip to the Hardware Store & Other Calamities”; and “A Smidge of Crazy”, from her Quirky Essays for Quirky People series.
Her books have won numerous awards including three-time winner of the “Indie Book of the Day” Award, First Place in the 2016 Chanticleer Murder & Mayhem Mystery Writing Competition, Honorable Mention in the Readers’ Favorite Contest for Non-Fiction Humor, and Finalist, 2017 Kindle Book Awards.
Her latest book, “Accidental Activist: Justice for the Groveland Four” is a memoir she collaborated on with her son Josh about his quest for justice in a racially charged case in Florida.
Josh Venkataraman is a University of Florida graduate and author of “Accidental Activist: Justice for the Groveland Four”, a memoir he co-authored with his mom about lessons he learned while working to exonerate four men falsely accused of a terrible crime in the Jim Crow South. He works at Viacom CBS as a Manager of Activation & Branded Content.