LEESBURG – Leesburg High School student Dencov Bryant II was chosen as the first recipient of the Samuel Shepherd Memorial Rights Scholarship, an award created to honor the memory and legacy of the Groveland Four.
Last week, Bryant was awarded the $ 1,000 scholarship at the Leesburg Resource Center with his family and community leaders including Lake County Schools Superintendent Diane Kornegay, school board members, LHS Principal Mike Randolph, along with many others.
“I feel tremendously honored, humbled, and grateful to be the first one in Lake County to ever receive this scholarship award,” Bryant said.
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The Samuel Shepherd Memorial Rights Scholarship
The Samuel Shepherd Memorial Rights Scholarship fund was created to honor the Groveland Four and those who have lost their lives fighting for civil rights.
The scholarship was established by the Robinson House Foundation, Inc. which is led by Shepherd’s family members.
“This is a new scholarship and this will be the first year of giving this scholarship as a foundation,” said Cleveland Robinson, Founder and Executive Director of the Robinson House Foundation. “We’re doing this scholarship in Lake County because of it’s personal connection and we think it would do justice here for Lake County students. ”
The two scholarships that the foundation offers focus on providing opportunities for students seeking education at historically Black colleges and universities. Students who sought the scholarship were judged on their GPAs, extracurriculars and essays.
“The Samuel Shepherd Memorial Rights Scholarship is specifically for students who are interested in going to school to either do pre-law with aspirations to become a lawyer or some type of civic engagement that will focus on civil rights,” Cleveland said. “We are hoping to continue to offer this scholarship every single year in order to memorialize the whole ideal of justice and civil rights and equality.”
‘A monumental civil rights case’
The Groveland Four were four young, Black men including Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, and Walter Irvin, who were all falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old and assaulting the woman’s husband in 1949.
After being accused of this crime, Shepherd and Thomas were both killed. Shepherd, who was handcuffed, was shot to death by former Sheriff Willis McCall. Thomas was hunted down by a posse when he attempted to flee. Greenlee and Irvin were both convicted and imprisoned.
The charges and sentences of the Groveland Four are regarded as one of the worst cases of racial injustice in US history.
“The Groveland Four was a monumental civil rights case,” Cleveland said.
In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his cabinet issued a pardon of the four men, but the goal for the four’s families and many others was a full exoneration.
Last year, State Attorney Bill Gladson filed a motion to dismiss the charges and sentences of the Groveland Four. This motion dismissed the indictments of Thomas and Shepherd, set aside the judgments and sentences of Greenlee and Irvin, and corrected the record with newly discovered evidence.
“Finally … we were successful and won their exoneration,” said Dr. Beverly Robinson, a cousin of Shepherd’s and the Educational Liason for the Robinson House Foundation.
After the exoneration, the Robinson family decided to create a scholarship in memory of their family member.
“We have always done things in Sam’s honor – the family has,” Beverly said. “The scholarship was just another way of honoring him.”
Bryant said he is honored to be in this position and recognizes the importance of the Groveland Four’s saga.
“To me the case represents a time in our history not only as residents of Lake County but people of the United States when the race was a barrier and caused people to have prejudice against you,” Bryant said.
And for the Robinson family, this scholarship represents both closure and an homage.
“For me, I think the scholarship brings for a lack of a better word, I want to say‘ prestige ’but it’s more than prestige,” Beverly said. “It really keeps the story of the Groveland Four in the forefront, the history in the forefront, and if you look at the case, this case touches every aspect of civil rights. “
Beverly said she is excited to offer opportunities that Sam was not able to experience himself.
He was a young man, a Veteran, that had been away to serve our country. But he never got the opportunity to exercise what he had learned in the military, or go to college, or have his family be proud of him, or have a family of his own, “she said. “So I just think this scholarship is truly a wonderful representation of a young African American male who could have been successful if he had the opportunity to live.”
‘It really has been a tremendous honor’
The Robinson House Foundation granted the award to Bryant, who was recommended by Lake County officials and stood out for his dedication to the community.
“The Robinson House Foundation really focuses on academic excellence but most important character excellence. When Mr. Bryant submitted his application it was stellar, “Cleveland said.
Bryant has a long list of accomplishments at just 17 years old. He’s LHS ‘student body president and has worked with the Lake County School Board. He’s also participated in multiple clubs around campus.
“It’s one thing to read about a scholarship recipient on paper and then see them in person and they’re really doing the work that they said they were doing on paper. So it was really amazing, “Cleveland said.
After Bryant graduates from LHS, he is planning to go to the University of South Florida and major in communications. After he graduates he hopes to continue to serve his community.
“After I get my Bachelors I want to go into government service. I want to start behind the scenes first and work my way out to the front,” Bryant said. “All my life I never felt that there was a higher calling than serving others and serving your community and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
“It really has been a tremendous honor to receive this scholarship and to serve the Leesburg and Lake County community. I have enjoyed every minute of it and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity.”