History and the people who make it: Sophia Threat (part 2)

This is part 2 of a 2017 interview with Ms. Sophia Threat (T) of Groveland, Florida, by Deidre Houchen (H). It provides insight on how history is remembered, on the role that race plays within the carceral system, and the ways history can better be respected. Transcript edited by Donovan Carter.

H: What are your memories of growing up in Groveland other than workin’ in the groves?

T: For me it was good. We were back in the [19]70s, but for me it was good.

H: By good, you mean you enjoyed your childhood, you have happy memories?

T: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Happy memories.

H: What did you do after you graduated high school?

T: I started working at Walt Disney. I worked there for a while and then at McDonald’s and Lake County Sheriff’s Office, that’s where I retired from.

H: What did you do at Lake County Sheriff’s Office?

T: I was a correction officer at the Lake County Jail.

H: How many years did you work there?

T: Twenty-six and a half.

H: That’s a long time. Congratulations on retiring.

T: Thank you, I’m enjoyin’ it.

H: Good for you. How was that? Working for Lake County Sheriff’s Office, which is at the heart of the Groveland case.

T: Um-hm. But McCall was no longer there. But, you still have that atmosphere a little bit.

H: What kind of atmosphere?

T: Like you still knew your place and don’t step out of it, you know, just do your job and that was it. When I first started, it was like that. Then it shifted a little bit because times was changing a little bit, but you could still tell. I mean, even today.

H: So it was a predominantly white, or definitely white-run sheriff’s office when you started?

T: Um-hm. They were startin’ to hire a few Blacks when I started.

H: But the sheriff was still white? And the deputies? Those are still majority white?

T: Oh yeah, yes. Even today. I don’t think they have any, maybe one or two, in the whole department out there on the road right now. Um-hm. That’s why I said it really hasn’t changed. Now the jail part, it’s a little different. There’s more Blacks working there, on the hiring part.

H: What about the way people are treated by the sheriff’s department now?

T: Some are treated fairly and some are not treated fairly.

H: Something must stand out in your mind when you say some are not treated fairly. Do you want to tell me more about that?

T: No.

H: Okay, I understand. I’m asking based on the Groveland story and how terribly those four were mistreated. Do you still see that kind of treatment going on?

T: Not as in your face, but it still happens. Not on a large scale.

H: There are many things that happened in that Groveland case I mean there was outright beating. Would you say that kind of behavior still happens?

T: When I first started, yes. But then it subsided. At the beginning of my career it was like that.

H: Was it only Blacks who were beaten when you first started?

T: The majority, yes.

H: How’d you deal with that?

T: I had to look deep and say “Hey, you can’t do that around me. It’s not right, please don’t do that.” It’s hard because I know my job and that’s not part of my job. Care, control, and custody is my job. If the situation warrants where you have to go in on someone, then yes ‘cause I’m not getting hurt, I don’t want you to get hurt and I don’t my other officers to get hurt. So it kind of depends—if I see someone that’s getting out of control I stop ‘em—things like that.

H: I’m hearing you saying you had to walk a fine line between making sure that you, fellow officers, et cetera were safe and protected by inmates who might be potentially violent.

T: Oh yeah. Well that’s what it’s all about pretty much.

H: But then there was also an awareness that police brutality was not okay.

T: Yes. And because of what my uncle went through. And I was working for the sheriff department, the same sheriff department that did that. So I had to be careful of what I said and how I said it. And my momma always told me, “Don’t say anything. They don’t know, they don’t need to know unless they asked you.”

H: Who you are?

T: Um-hm ‘cause no one knew. I mean, even, well they know now, but even until I retired. No one knew.

H: And that was on purpose?

T: I never said anything. I never had a reason to say anything.

H: Why do you think your mom told you not to tell them?

T: ‘Cause she was scared for me. Of what might happen. The same thing that happened to my uncle. If I opened my mouth and said something or … She knows I can get very boisterous on certain things, so she’d always tell me, “Don’t say anything, just do your job. They don’t need to know, just be careful what you say.” And that’s what I did. I always went to work with that awareness.

H: And that awareness kept you safe?

T: Yeah. It did keep me safe. And being able to talk to people and communicate with the ones who were in there kept me safe.

H: You’re talking about the inmates?

T: Yes.

H: And talk to ‘em and communicate with ‘em—

T: As a person, not as an inmate. They already know they’re an inmate so you talk to them just like you’d talk to anybody else. They have problems, we all got problems. It’s communicatin’ and talking to ‘em and treatin’ ‘em like a human being, which they are. And that keeps you safe. But you’re still aware of where you’re at too, and you’re still aware that they are an inmate, but you treat ‘em like a human being. You don’t degrade ‘em or things like that ‘cause they already feel bad ‘cause they’re locked up, they’re away from their families and stuff, the kids, they don’t need that. So it makes it better for you and better for them.

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, we have to deal with the same thing, there’s no difference. It’s just our skin color.

H: Do you think it would be helpful, for people to remember?

T: I think so. Maybe people could see that it was wrong and what happened ‘cause, you know, kinda like all you hear is what people say or don’t say and if there was something in the history of Groveland that they could actually go and look at and see it and it’s in writing and it actually happened. That they could say, “Wow, that was wrong.”

H: I mentioned to you before that one of the ways that could possibly happen is some kind of public marker like what happened in the Rosewood community, there’s a public marker there that says what happened with Rosewood massacre. Now it’s a Florida historical landmark. Do you think that would be appropriate in Groveland?

T: That would be appropriate, but I don’t see it happening … because you still have animosity from this trial that happened so long ago.

H: Who has animosity?

T: People in Groveland. They don’t want to remember that. They don’t want to bring that up because of what happened and how it happened.

H: Do you think that’s whites and Blacks alike?

T: Both. Because it was just a tragedy. Groveland was on fire, they were burnin’ everything. That included the Ku Klux Klan so that was off-limits to talk about.

H: The story that I heard was that a lot of people left.

T: Um-hm, a lot of people left Groveland after that, or during that time. They were trying to get away from the fires and the Ku Klux Klan and the shooting so they just loaded up their car and took off or caught the bus out or walked out.

H: Where did they go?

T: Away from Groveland. I don’t know, they just left, they just getting’ away from that.

H: But your family didn’t leave?

T: No.

H: And your family was safe?

T: Somewhat, yes.

H: I’ve heard stories that say that their parents, your grandparents, were also beaten. Did you hear that growing up?

T: I heard that. Through the grapevine.

H: Have you ever asked your parents?

T: I don’t want to know that.

H: I understand. Do you know how they protected themselves at that time?

T: They hid.

H: Any other thoughts about that time and all that violence that happened?

T: I don’t know if I could survive that. I really don’t know if I could survive that because that’s hard, even thinkin’ about it now.

H: How do you think they survived it, Ms. Sophia?

T: Prayer. Prayer and God watching over them, and hiding.

H: What’s the best case scenario for Groveland now?

T: That they acknowledge that it happened. Even putting a plaque on some wall that states what happened and then renouncing that it was wrong. Public acknowledgement. For everyone to see, not just the ones in Groveland.

H: When you say not just the ones in Groveland, you’re alluding to the proclamation. But you are interested in something that might stand the test of time?

T:Yes. Something that people can go and see and read and look at. Most people don’t even know what happened ‘cause nobody talks about it, so it’s not in the history, but that could be something they could be teaching. That actually happened in Lake County that they can discuss.

H: So kids who are growing up today?

T: No idea. No clue that anything like that ever happened in Lake County. Things have relaxed a little bit in Lake County, but it has not changed a great deal ‘cause you still have the racism, but it’s a different racism.

H: How is it different?

T: It’s not as prevalent as it was. It’s still there but they do it a different way, to try and keep you down.

H: Just what makes you feel that way about the way things are now?

T: Because I can still see it, even in my job I could see it. The way they talk to you, still, little things they say or do that you can see. They still try to degrade you, but in a different way, like a nice-nasty way. It has not changed that much.

H: This community you live in now is integrated?

T: Yes.

H: And it is comfortable to live here?

T: Oh my god I love it. I love this area. My little community, I love it. But I do want things to change because my grandkids are interracial, so it really really needs to change. I tell my grandson, “You still have to be careful, Tarius, ‘cause your skin is darker, it’s not whiter.” And he goes, “I know, granny, I know.”

H: Does he know? The story, the family story?

T: We’ve be telling him, yeah. He’s fifteen, so I think he can handle it now ‘cause he’s in high school and he’s able to grasp things a lot better. Yeah, he knows, he’s been reading the book and things we tell him.

H: Do you feel like you’re worried for his safety in the same way your mom was worried for—

T: Yes. Because he is Black. His skin is darker, so he’s considered Black. Some places he go, things he say, he has to be careful still because there is racism. It’s still racism.

Read the entire interview at the UF Digital Collections at tinyurl.com/Iguana1654. 

Learn about how the Groveland Four have been honored and posthumously exonerated in 2021 at tinyurl.com/Iguana1655

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