History and the people who make it: Sophia Threat (part 1)

This 2017 interview of Ms. Sophia Threat [T]of Groveland, Florida, by Deidre Houchen [H], offers a small peek into the ways race and labor played a role in everyday life in rural Florida in the mid 20th century, and how strong and resilient families had to be to survive. Threat recalls her childhood hearing about the Groveland Four: two of the falsely accused men were her uncles. Transcript edited by Donovan Carter.

H: Where were you born, Ms. Sophia?

T: I was born and raised in Groveland.

H: And who did you live with?

T: My mom, Louise Threat and E.T. Threat, my dad. 

H: Do you have brothers and sisters?

T: I have three brothers and two sisters and they have passed— I’m the only girl left. Um-hm.

H: Tell me how you are related to one of the members of the Groveland Four and which member.

T:  I am the niece of Shepherd and Irvin.

H: So you’re the niece of Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin because one’s brother married the other’s —

T: Sister.

H: Sister. So Delilah Irvin — your grandmother — was the mother of Walter Irvin. Where did you go to school?

T: Groveland High School.

H: What elementary school?

T: Groveland Middle School and Groveland Elementary. [laughter]

H: When you went to those three schools were they integrated?

T: Yes ma’am.

H: What stories, if any, did you hear growing up about Walter and Samuel’s life and what had happened to them in the Groveland case?

T: All I knew was they didn’t do it, and it was a big trial and he was sentenced — he was found guilty — and he served like eighteen years.

H: And by he you’re talking about Walter.

T: Walter, um-hm, my uncle.

H: Do you remember or did you hear anything about your churches, the response of Black churches to this going on?

T: No.

H: No they had no response; you didn’t hear anyone ever talk about it?

T: I didn’t hear anybody talk about it, ever. Even my mom, she never talked about it. I know it was hurting her inside, but she never talked about it. She didn’t want to talk about it. It just was too painful for her.

H: Do you know of any response that places like Black churches had when it happened in 1949, you know, as a response?

T: No I hadn’t heard of any response on that. People just scared to talk about it, you know, you bring that up and their eyes get big and “I don’t want to talk about it.” It’s like a plague or something.

H: What did your father and mother do for work?

T: My dad, well, his earlier years he worked for Dick Watson and he drove trucks. He also worked in fields, in the orange fields.

H: Who’s Dick Watson?

T: It was a big company, mechanic-type company, that at the time was in Claremont.

H: Was that the first job you know of him having even before you were born?

T: Um-hm.

H: For the majority of his adult career while he was raising kids, he was working for this person Dick Watson and also working in the groves.

T: Yeah, and then after that he started driving trucks. My mom she worked at the hospital. She was a maid, in housekeeping.

H: And which hospital was that?

T: South Lake.

H: I’m interested in the experience of working with the groves. What stories do you remember of how that was, of working in the groves?

T: Are you talking about the fruit groves?

H: Do you remember the names, particularly of any of the citrus groves?

T: Oh my goodness no.

H: Not one!

T: No, but there was so many  we went to so many. No I don’t remember the names.

H: When you say “we went to so many” who’s the “we”?

T: My family, I mean the whole family went. It was like a family thing.

H: Mom, dad —

T: Mom, dad, all the kids, yes — went to work in the groves.

H: What’d you wear?

T: Old clothes. No school clothes. You get out of school clothes, change into your work clothes, which is old clothes that you could throw away: long pants, long sleeves, old tennis shoes that got holes in ‘em —that’s what you wore ‘cause you were out in the dirt all the time.

H: How old were you?

T: Oh wow, I’d say seven, eight, I can remember.

H: Who else worked in the groves at that time? So we’re talking about late 1960s.

T: Wow, um probably the 70s by the time we got there. Oh wow, there were quite a few families out there.

H: Quite a few families. Was it all African American workers?

T: Mostly.

H: Mostly, and those who were not, what were they? What race and where did they come from?

T: Mexicans.

H: So African American and Mexican workers. Do you remember the people working on the grove at that time being folks who lived in the Groveland area?

T: Um-hm.

H: Or was anybody migrant, coming in from someplace else?

T: There were some migrants that were coming in because of the work … African American migrants.

H: What about Mexican migrants?

T: There were a few, but not very many.

H: How long would you stay out there and work?

T: Oh my god, seemed like forever. [laughter]

H: Too long?

T: Yes, but I mean, back then it was — I figured, say we get out of school at 3. So at 4 we’re at the field, and we stay there until we get it all up. And if it’s dark, we’re getting them all up. I remember some days — some evenings, it’s pitch black out there and we gotta use the goat lights to see, vehicle lights to see where the fruit is so you can get ‘em up off the ground. We wouldn’t leave until we get ‘em all up. That was the way of life back then, that’s the way the parents made the money to feed us, clothe us, pay bills.

H: As an adult, do you have any sense of how African Americans were treated working in the groves?

T: Yes. As an adult, I have my own opinion. [laughter] My opinion is they were robbed. They didn’t make any money. And, as kids you really don’t know ‘cause they’re the adults and my parents never really talked about any of that stuff around us. As I became an adult, I’m like “oh my god, you guys worked for free.” ‘Cause you know sometimes they didn’t take social security out, you know, and they were workin’ hard back then. So all those years were like for nothing, they were robbed because there was no social security taken out so those years are like wasted years. And now, they’re livin’ on maybe a thousand dollars a month, maybe, for social security. And all those years …

H: So how were they paid, if the farm manager wasn’t paying social security?

T: They paid cash … OK, well my dad was in the military, too so.

H: Do you know what year he came out of the military?

T: No I do not but my dad is 93 he was in World War II. Thank god I still have him.

H: Yes! What year was he born?

T: 1923. May 8.

H: May 8, 1923. And what year was your mother born?

T: March 30, 1930.

H: So your dad would have been around 20 something in the [19]40s when the groves were definitely booming in Groveland and folks, many African Americans were working. He would’ve been in his thirties, right around turning thirty, when Sheriff McCall picked up all the Groveland men. Well, except for Earnest Thomas, who wouldn’t have been able to be picked up. But part of the story, at least the story that’s documented in the Devil in the Grove book and some of the FBI papers, is that Sheriff McCall was not too happy that these two men returning from military service wouldn’t work in the grove.

T: Right.

H: And that you’re family, Walter Irvin was really targeted because he was still wearin’ his military uniform and refused to go work in the grove. Have you heard that view of what happened before?

T: Yeah, I’ve heard that.

H: What are your thoughts?

T: I think that they thought Walter and Samuel was too good to have that uniform on. Well, I wouldn’t say too good. Should not have that uniform on because of their skin color, even though they did fight in the war. They were in the military. And they should be in the groves, doin’ fieldwork, like the rest of the Black people. And that’s not what they wanted to do.

H: Why were so many. I’m trying to understand how and why so many Black folks in Groveland ended up workin’ in the grove.

T: Because that’s all they had.

H: Growing up you did not hear really much at all about the —

T: I knew because my mom told me.

H: What did she tell you?

T: That her brother was sentenced to life, well actually on death row and then they committed [commuted] it to life. But, for supposedly rapin’ a White lady.

H: Do you remember about how old you were when she told you?

T: Oh, wow. Maybe eight.

Ms. Threat later shares about her twenty-six year tenure as a corrections officer in the Lake County Sheriff’s office. Offering the following reflection:

H: What are those twenty six years of working at the jail and we said it’s the Lake County Sheriff’s office?

T: Um-hm.

H: What did that show you about white and Black life in Groveland in that area?

T: You can get along. There’s no difference. We all go through the same thing, we all have problems.

Part two of this interview will appear in the September Iguana. Read the rest of this interview at the UF Digital Collections at tinyurl.com/Iguana1616.

To learn how the Groveland Four were honored and posthumously exonerated in 2021, go to tinyurl.com/Iguana1617.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

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