Remembering Rosewood: The racist lie that set off the destruction of a black Florida community
Four black schoolchildren raced home along a dirt road in Archer, Florida, in 1944, kicking up a dust cloud wake as they ran. They were under strict orders from their mother to run – not lollygag or walk or jog, but run – directly home after hitting the road’s curve.
The littlest, six-year-old Lizzie Robinson (now Jenkins), led the pack with a brother on each side and her sister behind carrying her books.
“And I would be [running], my feet barely touching the ground,” Jenkins, now 77, said at her home in Archer.
Despite strict adherence to their mother’s orders, the siblings weren’t told why they should race home. To the children, it was one of several mysterious dictates issued during childhood in the Jim Crow south.
As Jenkins tells it, the children didn’t know why Amos ’n’ Andy was often interrupted by revving engines and calls from her father to “Go upstairs now!”, or why aunt Mahulda Carrier, a schoolteacher, fled to the bedroom each time a car drove down their rural road.
Explanations for demands to hide came later, when Jenkins’s mother, Theresa Brown Robinson, whispered to her daughter the story of violence that befell the settlement of Rosewood in 1923.
The town was 37 miles south-east of Archer on the main road to the Gulf. Carrier worked there as the schoolteacher, while living with her husband Aaron Carrier. On New Year’s Day 1923, a white woman told her husband “a nigger” assaulted her, a false claim that precipitated a week of mob violence that wiped the prosperous black hamlet off the map, and led to the near lynching of Aaron Carrier.
Jenkins now believes that all of it – the running, calls to go upstairs, her aunt fleeing to the bedroom – was a reaction to a message her parents received loud and clear: don’t talk about Rosewood, ever, to anyone.
But after Jim Crow laws lifted, and lynch mob justice was no longer a mortal threat, survivors did begin to talk. So egregious were the stories of rape, murder, looting, arson and neglect by elected officials, that Florida investigated the claims in a 1993 report.
That led to a law that eventually compensated then elderly victims $150,000 each, and created a scholarship fund. The law, which provided $2.1m total for the survivors, improbably made Florida one of the only states to create a reparations program for the survivors of racialized violence, placing it among federal programs that provided payments to Holocaust survivors and interned Japanese Americans.
News of Florida’s reparations program ran nationwide when it was passed in 1994, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal among others. Hollywood picked up the tale. Don Cheadle starred in a 1997 film about the pogrom. Several books were written about Rosewood.
Though the legislation was never called such, the program now represents one of just a handful of reparations cases in the United States, as calls to compensate victims of racialized violence have grown louder in the last two years.
2015 brought renewed calls to compensate victims of race-related violence from college students, theologians and criminal justice advocates. The city of Chicago started a $5.5m reparations fund for the more than 100 victims tortured at the hands of police commander Jon Burge.
Last month, students at Georgetown University demanded that the administration set aside an endowment to recruit black professors equal to the profit from an 1838 slave sale that paid off university debt. The 272 slaves were sold for $400 each, the equivalent of about $2.7m today. One day after protests began, students successfully renamed a residence hall named after Thomas Mulledy, the university president who oversaw the sale (it was renamed Freedom Hall).
At least one progressive Christian theologian is pushing Protestants to reckon their own history with slavery with reparations. In 2014, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates breathed fresh life into the debate in his widely lauded article The Case for Reparations .
Where Rosewood once stood is now little more than a rural scrubland along state road 24, a lonely highway in central Florida bordered by swamp, slash pine and palmetto. A placard on the side of the road describes the horror visited upon the hamlet.
But in 1923, the settlement was a small and prosperous predominantly black town, with its own baseball team, a masonic temple and a few hundred residents. It was just three miles from the predominantly white town of Sumner, and 48 miles from Gainesville.
On New Year’s Day 1923, white Sumner resident Fannie Taylor was bruised and beaten when her husband returned home. The Taylors were white, and the residents of Sumner were in near universal agreement that Fannie’s assailant was black.
A crowd swelled in Sumner to find the “fugitive”, some from as far away as Gainesville, where the same day the Klu Klux Klan held a high-profile parade. Over the next seven days gangs of hundreds delivered lynch mob justice to the once-affluent town of Rosewood.
“I blame the deputy sheriff,” Robie Mortin, a Rosewood survivor, told the Seminole Tribune in 1999. “Because that lady never dropped a name as to who did what to her. Just said a negro, black man. But when the sheriff came along with his posse and everything, he put a name to the person: Jesse Hunter.”
Mortin died in 2010 at age 94 in Riviera Beach, Florida. She was believed to be one of the last survivors of the New Year’s riots in 1923. After years of silence she became one of the most vocal. Though Florida completed an investigation into the events that took place in Rosewood, some narratives remain disputed.
“They didn’t find Jesse Hunter, but noticed that here’s a bunch of niggers living better than us white folks. That disturbed these people,” Mortin said. Her uncle, Sam Carter, is believed to have taken the man who beat Taylor, a fellow Mason, to safety in Gulf Hammock, a few miles away. When Carter returned he was tortured, shot and lynched by the mob looking for Taylor’s assailant.
“My grandma didn’t know what my uncle Sammy had done to anybody to cause him to be lynched like that,” Mortin told the Tribune. “They took his fingers and his ears, and they just cut souvenirs away from him. That was the type of people they were.”
Carter is believed to be the first of eight documented deaths associated with the riots that would worsen over the next three days.
The settlement itself was wiped off the map. Several buildings were set on fire just a few days after New Year’s, and the mob wiped out the remainder of the town a few days later, torching 12 houses one by one. At the time, the Gainesvile Sun reported a crowd of up to 150 people watched the dozen homes and a church set ablaze. Even the dogs were burned.
“The burning of the houses was carried out deliberately and although the crowd was present all the time, no one could be found who would say he saw the houses fired,” a Sun report said, describing the scene.
At least two white men died, including CP “Poly” Wilkerson of Sumner and Henry Andrews of Otter Creek, when they attempted to storm a house Rosewood residents had barricaded themselves in.
A state report on the violence identifies murdered black Rosewood residents as Sam Carter, matriarch Sarah Carrier, James Carrier, Sylvester Carrier and Lexie Gordon. Mingo Williams, a black man who lived nearby, was also killed by the mob.
Aaron Carrier, Mahulda’s husband and Jenkins’s uncle, was nearly killed when he was dragged behind a truck and tortured on the first night of the riots. At death’s door, Carrier was spirited away by the Levy county sheriff, Bob Walker, she said, and placed in jail in Bronson as a favor to the lawman.
Mahulda was captured later the same night by the mob, Jenkins said, and tortured before Walker eventually found her.
“They got Gussie, that was my aunt’s name, they tied a rope around her neck, however they didn’t drag her, they put her in the car and took her to Sumner. Don’t know if you know – a southern tradition is to build a fire … and to stand around the fire and drink liquor and talk trash,” Jenkins said.
“So they had her there, like she was the [accused], and they were the jury, and they were trying to force her into admitting a lie. ‘Where was your husband last night?’ ‘He was at home in bed with me.’ They asked her that so many times so she got indignant with them … And they said, ‘She’s a bold bitch – let’s rape the bitch.’ And they did. Gang style.”
Another Rosewood resident, James Carrier, was shot over the fresh graves of his brother and mother after several men captured and interrogated him. He was first told to dig his own grave, but couldn’t because two strokes had paralyzed one arm. The men left his body splayed over the graves of his family members.
But despite widespread coverage of the incident – the governor was even notified via telegram – the state did nothing.
Not for one month, when it appears a feeble attempt to indict locals was made by a grand jury, after all the residents of Rosewood had long fled into the nearby swamps and settlements of central Florida.
The oral history of Rosewood was a secret, passed through several families with each recipient sworn to silence, as black Americans endured decades of terror in Florida. When Jenkins was six her parents would have had fresh memories of lynchings.
From 1877 to 1950, the county where the Robinsons lived, Alachua, had among the largest sheer volume of lynchings of any community in the nation, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Per capita, Florida lynched more people than any other state. And counties surrounding Alachua were not friendlier.
Hernando, Citrus, Lafayette and Taylor counties had some of the highest per capita rates of lynchings in the country. By volume, nearby Marion and Polk counties had among the most in the US.
Legislation, reparations and state reckons with ugly past
The story only came to light in 1982, after a reporter at the then St Petersburg Times exposed the forgotten riot. The reporter, Gary Moore, had traveled to Cedar Key, 10 miles south-west of Rosewood on the coast, to explore a Sunday feature on the rural Gulf town.
“Like the public at large, I personally had never heard of Rosewood,” Moore wrote in a synopsis of research published in the 1993 report that was submitted to the Florida Board of Regents. “I held dim assumptions that any such incident would long ago have been thoroughly researched and publicized by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, advocacy organizations, or others.”
That it wasn’t, Moore blamed on “psychological denial” and “blindness”.
“There were many things thought better left unquestioned,” Moore reasoned.
By 1993, before the report was issued, Moore’s story had made a wide impact, becoming a 60 Minutes documentary and earning follow-ups by other news outlets. Moore, however, recounted in detail his struggle for academic and political acceptance of the narrative, and said even 11 years after his story appeared many attempted to deny the massacre occurred.
One of Moore’s sources, Arnett Doctor, would later devote much of his life to lobbying for Rosewood reparations. Doctor, a descendant of survivors, spent untold hours eliciting detailed narratives of the event from survivors. He is often cited as the “driving force” behind the reparations bill, as the man who brought his findings to high-powered attorneys at Holland & Knight, who helped lobby the legislature for reparations.
Doctor died at the age of 72 in March 2015, in Spring Hill, Florida, a few hours south of Rosewood.
“We deliberately avoided anything but compensation for the losses they incurred,” said Martha Barnett, an attorney at Holland & Knight who helped lobby the Florida legislature on behalf of the survivors of Rosewood. Barnett said the term “reparations” can’t be found in the law passed in Florida.
Instead, attorneys focused on private property rights. She said she and other attorneys needed “to make it something legislators could find palatable in the deep south some 20-some years ago”.
Barnett said the then Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, promised his support from the beginning. By April 1994, the House passed a bill to compensate victims of the attack with a 71-40 vote. Four days later, on 9 April 1994, the Senate passed a matching bill with a vote of 26-14, to cries of “Praise the lord!” from those Rosewood descendants present.
“It’s time for us to send an example, a shining example, that we’re going to do what’s right – for once,” Democratic senator Matthew Meadows said at the time. Chiles died less than four years after signing the bill.
Now, near Rosewood, Rebel flags are common. Businesses bear the name, and some locals would be as happy to again forget the incident.
Information on the pogrom is notably muted in some local historical societies.
“What it takes to make someone whole, what it takes to repair the past, is probably different for every person, and some things are more effective than others,” said Barnett.
Many of the survivors invested the money they received into their homes. Willie Evans, 87 when he received the $150,000 payment in 1995, put a new roof , windows and doors on his home. Mortin considered traveling to Greece. Jenkins’s mother, who received $3,333.33 from the fund, placed ledgers on the graves of her sister, three brothers and parents.
“The thing that mattered most to [survivors] was that the state of Florida said, ‘We had an obligation to you as our citizens, we failed to live up to it then, we are going to live up to it today, and we are sorry,’” Barnett said.
For Doctor, whose own identity seemed wrapped up in the Rosewood story (the license plate on his truck read “ROSEWOOD” ), even the unique success of the legislation was not enough. He dreamed of rebuilding the town.
“The last leg of the [healing process] is the redevelopment and revitalization of a township called Rosewood,” Doctor told the Tampa Bay Times in 2004 , as the plaque along State Road 24 was dedicated by then governor Jeb Bush. “If we could get $2bn, $3bn of that we could effect some major changes in Levy County.”
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