By Jueseppi B.
Throughout the month Of February, TheObamaCrat™ will post a daily series called The Black History Moment Series. Each day for 28 days of this historic month you will be given the food of Black History to satisfy your hunger for knowledge.
The series continues with: Celebrating Black History Month: The Black History Moment Series #5 Rosewood, Florida. The Rosewood Massacre.
Rosewood is a ghost town in Levy County, Florida, United States. The site is located just off of State Road 24 about 1 mile (1.6 km) northeast of Sumner and 9 miles (14 km) northeast of Cedar Key. The town was destroyed and subsequently abandoned in 1923 as a result of the Rosewood massacre.
The Rosewood Massacre
The Rosewood massacre was a violent, racially motivated conflict that took place during the first week of January 1923 in rural Levy County, Florida, United States. At least six blacks and two whites were killed, and the town of Rosewood was abandoned and destroyed in what contemporary news reports characterized as a race riot. Racial disturbances were common during the early 20th century in the United States, reflecting the nation’s rapid social changes. Florida had an especially high number of lynchings in the years before the massacre, including the well-publicized Perry race riot where a black man had been burned at the stake in December 1922.
Rosewood was a quiet, primarily black, self-sufficient whistle stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Spurred by unsupported accusations that a white woman in nearby Sumner had been beaten and possibly raped by a black drifter, white men from nearby towns lynched a Rosewood resident. When black citizens defended themselves against further attack, several hundred whites combed the countryside hunting for black people and burned almost every structure in Rosewood. Survivors hid for several days in nearby swamps and were evacuated by train and car to larger towns. Although state and local authorities were aware of the violence, they made no arrests for the activities in Rosewood. The town was abandoned by black residents during the attacks. None ever returned.
Although the rioting was widely reported around the country, few official records documented the event. Survivors, their descendants, and the perpetrators remained silent about Rosewood for decades. Sixty years after the rioting, the story of Rosewood was revived in major media when several journalists covered it in the early 1980s. Survivors and their descendants organized to sue the state for having failed to protect them. In 1993, the Florida Legislature commissioned a report on the events. As a result of the findings, Florida became the first U.S. state to compensate survivors and their descendants for damages incurred because of racial violence. The massacre was the subject of a 1997 film directed by John Singleton. In 2004, the state designated the site of Rosewood as a Florida Heritage Landmark.
Published on Sep 13, 2013
DIRECTED BY JOHN SINGLETON! In 1923, a prosperous black town in Florida was burned to the ground, its people hunted and murdered, all because a white woman falsely claimed that a black man sexually assaulted her.
Rosewood was settled in 1845, nine miles (14 km) east of Cedar Key, near the Gulf of Mexico. Local industry centered on timber. The name Rosewood refers to the reddish color of cut cedar wood. Two pencil mills were nearby in Cedar Key; several turpentine mills and a sawmill three miles (4.8 km) away in Sumner helped support local residents, as did farming of citrus and cotton. The hamlet grew enough to warrant the construction of a post office and train depot on the Florida Railroad in 1870, but it was never incorporated as a town.
The initial settlers of Rosewood were both black and white. When most of the cedar trees in the area had been cut by 1890, the pencil mills closed, and many white residents moved to Sumner. By 1900, the population in Rosewood had become predominantly black. The village of Sumner was predominantly white, and relations between the two communities were relatively amicable. The population of Rosewood peaked in 1915 at 355 people. Two black families in Rosewood named Goins and Carrier were the most influential. The Goins family brought the turpentine industry to the area, and in the years preceding the attacks, were the second largest landowners in Levy County. To avoid lawsuits from white competitors, the Goins brothers moved to Gainesville, and the population of Rosewood decreased slightly.
The Carriers were also a large family, responsible for logging in the region. By the 1920s almost everyone in the close-knit community was distantly related to each other. Although residents of Rosewood probably did not vote because voter registration requirements in Florida had effectively disfranchised blacks since the turn of the century, both Sumner and Rosewood were part of a single voting precinct counted by the U.S. Census. In 1920, the combined population of both towns was 344 blacks and 294 whites.
As was common in the late 19th century South, Florida had imposed legal racial segregation under Jim Crow laws, requiring separate black and white public facilities and transportation. Blacks and whites created their own community centers: in 1920, the residents of Rosewood were mostly self-sufficient. They had three churches, a school, a large Masonic Hall, a turpentine mill, a sugarcane mill, a baseball team named the Rosewood Stars, and two general stores, one of which was white-owned. The village had about a dozen two-story wooden plank homes, other small two-room houses, and several small unoccupied plank farm and storage structures. Some families owned pianos, organs, and other symbols of middle-class prosperity. Survivors of Rosewood remember it as a happy place. In 1995 survivor Robie Mortin recalled at age 79, “Rosewood was a town where everyone’s house was painted. There were roses everywhere you walked. Lovely.”
The Rosewood Massacre 1923
In January 1923, white men from nearby towns lynched a Rosewood resident allegedly in response to unsupported accusations that a white woman in nearby Sumner had been beaten and possibly raped by a black drifter. When black citizens defended themselves against further attack, several hundred whites organized to comb the countryside hunting for black people and burned almost every structure in Rosewood. Survivors hid for several days in nearby swamps and were evacuated by train and car to larger towns. Although state and local authorities were aware of the violence, they made no arrests for the activities in Rosewood. The town was abandoned by black residents during the attacks. None ever returned.
In December 2010, a state scholarship was established for descendants of families that survived the massacre.
BGBA Interviews Rosewood Descendent
Racial tensions in Florida
Racial violence at the time was common throughout the nation, manifested as individual incidents of extra-legal actions, or attacks on entire communities. Lynchings reached a peak around the start of the 20th century and continued to be used as punishment throughout the South. In 1866 Florida, as did many Southern states, passed laws called Black Codes disfranchising black citizens. Although these were quickly overturned, and black citizens enjoyed a brief period of improved social standing, by the late 19th century black political influence was virtually nil.
A poll tax was imposed on Floridians in 1885, largely disfranchising poor whites and blacks alike, and further legal and political rights deteriorated in the years following. Without the right to vote, blacks were excluded as jurors and could not run for office, effectively excluding them from the political process. The United States as a whole was experiencing rapid social changes: an influx of European immigrants, industrialization and the growth of cities, and political experimentation in the North. In the South, black Americans grew increasingly dissatisfied with their lack of economic opportunity and status as second-class citizens.
Elected officials in Florida did not ease race relations. Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (1905–1909) suggested finding a location out of state for blacks to live separately. Tens of thousands of blacks moved to the North during and after World War I in the Great Migration, unsettling labor markets and introducing more rapid changes into cities. They were recruited by many expanding northern industries, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, the steel industry, and meatpacking. Florida governors Park Trammell (1913–1917) and Sidney Catts (1917–1921) generally ignored the emigration of blacks to the North and its causes. While Trammell was state attorney general, none of the 29 lynchings committed during his term were prosecuted, nor were the 21 that occurred while he was governor. Catts ran on a platform of white supremacy and anti-Catholic sentiment and openly criticized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when they complained he did nothing to investigate two lynchings in Florida. Catts changed his message when the turpentine and lumber industries claimed labor was scarce; he then pleaded with blacks to stay. By 1940, 40,000 blacks had left Florida to find employment, but also to escape the oppression of segregation, violence, and disfranchisement.
When U.S. troop training began for World War I, the idea of black soldiers receiving combat instruction alarmed many white Southerners. A confrontation regarding the rights of black soldiers culminated in the Houston Riot of 1917. German propaganda encouraged black soldiers to turn against their “real” enemies: American whites. Rumors reached the U.S. that French women had been sexually active with black American soldiers, which University of Florida historian David Colburn argues struck at the heart of Southern fears.
Colburn connects growing concerns of sexual intimacy between the races to what occurred in Rosewood: “Southern culture had been constructed around a set of mores and values which places white women at its center and in which the purity of their conduct and their manners represented the refinement of that culture. An attack on women not only represented a violation of the South’s foremost taboo, but it also threatened to dismantle the very nature of southern society.” The transgression of sexual taboo subsequently combined with the arming of blacks to raise fears among whites of an impending race war in the South.
The influx of blacks into urban centers in the North and Midwest increased racial tensions. Between 1917 and 1923, racial disturbances erupted in numerous cities throughout the U.S., motivated by economic competition for industrial jobs, mostly between whites and southern blacks who were often used as strikebreakers. One of the first and most violent instances was a riot in East St. Louis, sparked in 1917. In the Red Summer of 1919, racially motivated mob violence erupted in 23 cities — including Chicago, Omaha, and Washington, D.C. — caused by competition for jobs and housing by returning World War I veterans of both races, and the arrival of waves of new immigrants. Further unrest occurred in Tulsa in 1921. David Colburn distinguishes two types of violence against blacks up to 1923: Northern violence was generally spontaneous mob action against entire communities. Southern violence, on the other hand, took the form of individual incidents of lynchings and other extrajudicial actions. The Rosewood massacre, according to Colburn, resembled violence more commonly perpetrated in the North.
In the mid-1920s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) reached its peak membership in the South and Midwest after a revival beginning around 1915. Its growth was due in part to tensions from rapid industrialization and social change in many growing cities, and waves of new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The KKK was strong in the Florida cities of Jacksonville and Tampa;Miami’s chapter was influential enough to hold initiations at the Miami Country Club. The Klan also flourished in smaller towns of the South where racial violence had a long tradition dating back to the Reconstruction era. An editor of The Gainesville Daily Sun admitted that he was a member of the Klan in 1922, and praised the organization in print.
Despite Governor Catts’ change of attitude, white mob action frequently occurred in towns throughout north and central Florida and went unchecked by local law enforcement. Extrajudicial violence was so common that it often did not make the front pages of newspapers. In 1920, whites removed four black men from a local jail and lynched them after they were accused of raping a white woman in Macclenny. In Ocoee the same year, two black citizens armed themselves to go to the polls during an election. A confrontation ensued and two white election officials were shot, after which a white mob destroyed Ocoee’s black community, causing as many as 30 deaths, and destroying 25 homes, two churches, and a Masonic Lodge.
Just weeks before the Rosewood massacre, the Perry Race Riot occurred on 14 and 15 December 1922, in which whites burned Charles Wright at the stake and attacked the black community of Perry, Florida after the murder of a white schoolteacher. On the day following Wright’s lynching two more black men were shot and hanged; whites then burned the town’s black school, Masonic lodge, church, amusement hall, and several families’ homes.
Fannie Taylor’s story
The Rosewood massacre was provoked when a white woman in Sumner claimed she had been assaulted by a black man. Frances “Fannie” Taylor was 22 years old in 1923 and married to James, a 30-year-old millwright employed by Cummer & Sons. They lived in Sumner, where the mill was located, with their two young children. James’ job required him to leave each day during the darkness of early morning. Neighbors remembered Fannie Taylor as “very peculiar”. She was meticulously clean, scrubbing her cedar floors with bleach so that they shone white. Other women attested that Taylor was aloof; no one knew her very well.
On January 1, 1923, the Taylors’ neighbor reported that she heard a scream while it was still dark, grabbed her revolver and ran next door to find Fannie bruised and beaten, with scuff marks across the white floor. Taylor was screaming that someone needed to get her baby. She said a black man was in her house; he had come through the back door and assaulted her. The neighbor found the baby, but no one else. Taylor’s initial report stated her assailant beat her about the face but did not rape her. Rumors circulated—widely believed by whites in Sumner—that she was both raped and robbed. The charge was inflammatory in the South: the day before, the Klan had held a parade and rally of over 100 hooded Klansmen 50 miles (80 km) away in Gainesville under a burning cross and a banner reading, “First and Always Protect Womanhood”.
The neighbor also reported the absence that day of Taylor’s laundress, Sarah Carrier, whom the white women in Sumner called “Aunt Sarah”. Philomena Goins, Carrier’s granddaughter, told a different story about Fannie Taylor many years later. She joined Carrier at Taylor’s home as usual that morning. They watched a white man leave by the back door later in the morning before noon. She said Taylor did emerge from her home beaten, but it was well after morning. Carrier’s grandson and Philomena’s brother, Arnett Goins, sometimes went with them and had seen the white man before. His name was John Bradley and he worked for the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Carrier told others in the black community what she had seen that day; the black community of Rosewood understood that Fannie Taylor had a white lover. They got into a fight that day and he beat her. When Bradley left Taylor’s house, he went to Rosewood.
Quickly, Levy County Sheriff Robert Elias Walker raised a posse and started an investigation. When they found that Jesse Hunter, a black prisoner, had escaped from a chain gang, they began a search to question him about Taylor’s attack. Men arrived from Cedar Key, Otter Creek,Chiefland, and Bronson to help with the search. Adding confusion to the series of events later recounted, as many as 400 men began to gather. Sheriff Walker deputized some of them, but was unable to initiate them all. Walker asked for dogs from a nearby convict camp, but one dog may have been used by a group of men acting without Walker’s authority.
Dogs led a group of about 100 to 150 men to the home of Aaron Carrier, Sarah’s nephew. Aaron was taken outside, where his mother begged the men not to kill him. He was tied to a car and dragged to Sumner. Sheriff Walker put Carrier in protective custody at the county seat in Bronson to remove him from the men in the posse, many of whom were drinking and acting on their own authority. Worried that the group would quickly grow further out of control, Walker also urged black employees to stay at the turpentine mills for their own safety.
A group of vigilantes, who had become a mob by this time, seized Sam Carter, a local blacksmith and teamster who worked in a turpentine still. They tortured Carter into admitting that he had hidden the escaped chain gang prisoner. Carter led the group to the spot in the woods where he said he had taken Hunter, but the dogs were unable to pick up a scent. To the surprise of many witnesses, someone fatally shot Carter in the face.
The group hung Carter’s mutilated body from a tree as a symbol to other black men in the area. Some in the mob took souvenirs of his clothes. Survivors suggest that John Bradley fled to Rosewood because he knew he was in trouble and had gone to the home of Aaron Carrier, a fellow veteran and Mason. Carrier and Carter, another Mason, covered Bradley in the back of a wagon. Carter took Bradley to a nearby river, let him out of the wagon, then returned home to be met by the mob who had been led to him by dogs following Bradley’s scent.
After the lynching of Sam Carter, the mob met Sylvester Carrier—Aaron’s cousin and Sarah’s son—on a road and told him to get out of town. Sylvester refused, and when they left, he suggested gathering as many people as possible for protection.
Uploaded on May 18, 2008
Video contemplation of events that occurred in the Rosewood Massacre.
Despite the efforts of Sheriff Walker and mill supervisor W. H. Pillsbury to disperse them, mobs continued to gather. On the evening of January 4, a mob of armed white men went to Rosewood and surrounded the house of Sarah Carrier, which was filled with approximately 15 to 25 people seeking refuge, many of whom were children hiding upstairs under mattresses. Some of the children were in the house because they were visiting their grandmother for Christmas.
They were protected by Sylvester Carrier and possibly two other men, but Sylvester may have been the only one armed. He had a reputation of being proud and independent. In Rosewood, he was a formidable character, a crack shot, expert hunter, and music teacher, who was simply called “Man”. Many whites considered him arrogant and disrespectful.
Sylvester Carrier was reported in the New York Times saying that the attack on Fannie Taylor was an “example of what negroes could do without interference”. Whether or not he said this is debated, but a group of 20 to 30 men, inflamed by the statement, went to the Carrier house. They also believed that the black community in Rosewood was hiding escaped prisoner Jesse Hunter.
Reports conflict about who shot first, but after two members of the mob approached the house, someone opened fire. Sarah Carrier was shot in the head. Her nine-year-old niece, Minnie Lee Langley, had witnessed Aaron Carrier taken from his house three days earlier; when Langley heard someone had been shot, she went downstairs to find her grandmother, Emma Carrier. However, Sylvester placed her in a firewood closet in front of him as he watched the front door, using the closet for cover: “He got behind me in the wood [bin], and he put the gun on my shoulder, and them crackers was still shooting and going on. He put his gun on my shoulder … told me to lean this way, and then Poly Wilkerson, he kicked the door down. When he kicked the door down, Cuz’ Syl let him have it.”
Several shots were exchanged: the house was riddled with bullets, but the whites did not capture it. The standoff lasted long into the next morning when Sarah and Sylvester Carrier were found dead inside the house; several others were wounded, including a child who had been shot in the eye. Two white men, C. P. “Poly” Wilkerson and Henry Andrews, were killed; Wilkerson had kicked in the front door, and Andrews was behind him. At least four whites were wounded, one possibly fatally. The remaining children in the Carrier house were spirited out the back door into the woods. They crossed dirt roads one at a time, then hid under brush until they had all gathered away from Rosewood.
News of the armed standoff attracted people from all over the state. Reports were carried in the St. Petersburg Independent, the Florida Times-Union, the Miami Herald, and The Miami Metropolis, in versions of competing facts and overstatement. The Miami Metropolis listed 20 blacks and four whites dead and characterized the event as a “race war”. National newspapers also put the incident on the front page. The Washington Post and St. Louis Dispatch described a band of “heavily armed Negroes” and a “negro desperado” who were involved.
Most of the information came from discreet messages from Sheriff Walker, mob rumors, and other embellishments to part-time reporters who wired their stories to the Associated Press. Details about the armed standoff were particularly explosive. According to historian Thomas Dye, “The idea that blacks in Rosewood had taken up arms against the white race was unthinkable in the Deep South.” Black newspapers covered the events from a different angle. The Afro-American in Baltimore highlighted the acts of heroism against the onslaught of “savages”, but had their own exaggerations and distance from fact: “Two Negro women were attacked and raped between Rosewood and Sumner. The sexual lust of the brutal white mobbists satisfied, the women were strangled.”
The white mob burned the black churches in Rosewood. Philomena Goins’ cousin Lee Ruth Davis heard the bells tolling in the church as the men were inside setting it on fire. Even the white church in Rosewood was destroyed. Many black residents fled into the nearby swamps, some clothed only in their pajamas. Wilson Hall was nine years old at the time; he later recalled his mother waking him to flee into the swamps early in the morning when it was still dark; the lights from approaching cars could be seen for miles. The Hall family walked 15 miles (24 km) through swampland to the town of Gulf Hammock. The survivors recall that it was uncharacteristically cold for Florida, and people spent several nights in raised wooded areas called hammocks to evade the mob. Some took refuge with sympathetic white families. Sam Carter’s 69-year-old widow hid for two days in the swamps, then was driven by a sympathetic white mail carrier, under bags of mail, to meet her family in Chiefland.
White men began surrounding houses, pouring kerosene on and lighting them, then shooting at those who emerged. Lexie Gordon, a light-skinned 50-year-old woman who was ill with typhoid fever, had sent her children into the woods. She was killed by shotgun blast to the face when she fled from hiding underneath her home, which had been set on fire by the mob. Fannie Taylor’s brother-in-law claimed to be her killer.
On January 5, more whites converged on the area, forming a mob of between 200 to 300 people. Some came from out of state. Mingo Williams, who was 20 miles (32 km) away near Bronson, was collecting turpentine sap by the side of the road when a car full of whites stopped and asked his name. As was custom among many residents of Levy County, both black and white, Williams used a nickname that was more prominent than his given name; he replied to the car full of men with the name everyone used, “Lord God”, and they shot him dead.
Sheriff Walker pleaded with news reporters covering the violence to send a message to the Alachua County Sheriff P. G. Ramsey to send assistance. Carloads of men came from Gainesville to assist Walker; many of them had probably participated in the Klan rally earlier in the week. W. H. Pillsbury tried desperately to keep black workers in the Sumner mill, and worked with his assistant, a man named Johnson, to dissuade the white workers from joining others using extra-legal violence. Armed guards sent by Sheriff Walker turned away blacks who emerged from the swamps and tried to go home. W. H. Pillsbury’s wife secretly helped smuggle people out of the area. Several white men declined to join the mobs, including the town barber who also would not lend his gun to anyone. He said he did not want his “hands wet with blood”.
Governor Cary Hardee was on standby, ready to order National Guard troops in to neutralize the situation. Despite his message to the sheriff of Alachua County, Walker informed Hardee by telegram that he did not fear “further disorder” and urged the governor not to intervene. The governor’s office monitored the situation, in part because of intense Northern interest, but Hardee would not activate the National Guard without Walker’s request. Walker insisted he could handle the situation; records show that Governor Hardee took Sheriff Walker’s word and went on a hunting trip.
James Carrier, Sylvester’s brother and Sarah’s son, had previously suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. He left the swamps and returned to Rosewood. He asked W. H. Pillsbury, the white turpentine mill supervisor, for protection; Pillsbury locked him in a house but the mob found Carrier, and tortured him to find out if he had aided Jesse Hunter, the escaped convict. After they made him dig his own grave, they fatally shot him.
On January 6, white train conductors John and William Bryce managed the evacuation of some black residents to Gainesville. The brothers were independently wealthy Cedar Key residents who had an affinity for trains. They knew the people in Rosewood and had traded with them regularly. As they passed the area, the Bryces slowed their train and blew the horn, picking up women and children. Fearing reprisals from mobs, they refused to pick up any black men.
Many survivors boarded the train after having been hidden by white general store owner John Wright and his wife, Mary Jo. Over the next several days, other Rosewood residents fled to Wright’s house, facilitated by Sheriff Walker, who asked Wright to transport as many residents out of town as possible.
Lee Ruth Davis, her sister, and two brothers were hidden by the Wrights while their father hid in the woods. On the morning of Poly Wilkerson’s funeral, the Wrights left the children alone to attend. Davis and her siblings crept out of the house to hide with relatives in the nearby town of Wylly, but they were turned back for being too dangerous. The children spent the day in the woods but decided to return to the Wrights’ house. After spotting men with guns on their way back, they crept back to the Wrights, who were frantic with fear. Davis later described the experience: “I was laying that deep in water, that is where we sat all day long … We got on our bellies and crawled. We tried to keep people from seeing us through the bushes … We were trying to get back to Mr. Wright house. After we got all the way to his house, Mr. and Mrs. Wright were all the way out in the bushes hollering and calling us, and when we answered, they were so glad.”
Several other white residents of Sumner hid black residents of Rosewood and smuggled them out of town. Gainesville’s black community took in many of Rosewood’s refugees, waiting for them at the train station and greeting survivors as they disembarked, covered in sheets. On Sunday, January 7, a mob of 100 to 150 whites returned to burn the remaining dozen or so structures of Rosewood.
Many people were alarmed by the violence, and state leaders feared negative effects on the state’s tourist industry. Governor Cary Hardee appointed a special grand jury and special prosecuting attorney to investigate the outbreak in Rosewood and other incidents in Levy County. In February 1923, the all-white grand jury convened in Bronson. Over several days, they heard 25 witnesses, eight of whom were black, but found insufficient evidence to prosecute any perpetrators. The judge presiding over the case deplored the actions of the mob.
Newspapers started moving information about Rosewood off their front pages by the end of the week. The Chicago Defender, the most influential black newspaper in the U.S., reported that 19 people in Rosewood’s “race war” had died, and a soldier named Ted Cole appeared to fight the lynch mobs, then disappeared; no confirmation of his existence after this report exists. A few editorials appeared in Florida newspapers summarizing the event. The Gainesville Daily Sun justified the actions of whites involved, writing “Let it be understood now and forever that he, whether white or black, who brutally assaults an innocent and helpless woman, shall die the death of a dog.” The Tampa Tribune, in a rare comment on the excesses of whites in the area, called it “a foul and lasting blot on the people of Levy County”.
Northern publications were more willing to admit the breakdown of law, but many attributed it to the backwards mindset in the South. A socialist newspaper named the New York Call remarked “how astonishingly little cultural progress has been made in some parts of the world”, while the Nashville Banner compared it to actions recently taken in Northern cities, but characterized the entire event as “deplorable”. A three-day conference in Atlanta organized by the Southern Methodist Church released a statement that similarly condemned the anarchic week in Rosewood, but concluded saying, “No family and no race rises higher than womanhood. Hence, the intelligence of women must be cultivated and the purity and dignity of womanhood must be protected by the maintenance of a single standard of morals for both races.”
Officially, the recorded death toll of the first week of January 1923 was six blacks and two whites. Historians, however, disagree about this number. Some survivors’ stories claim there may have been up to 27 black residents killed, and assert that newspapers did not report the total number of white deaths; Minnie Lee Langley—who was in the Carrier house siege—recalls that she stepped over many white bodies on the porch when she left the house. Several eyewitnesses claim to have seen a mass grave filled with black people; one remembers a plow brought from Cedar Key that covered 26 bodies. However, by the time authorities investigated these claims, most of the witnesses were dead, or too elderly and infirm to lead them to a site to confirm the stories.
Aaron Carrier was held in jail for several months in early 1923; he died in 1965. James Carrier’s widow Emma was shot in the hand and the wrist and arrived in Gainesville on a train. She never recovered, and died in 1924. Sarah Carrier’s husband Haywood did not see the events in Rosewood. He was on a hunting trip, and discovered when he came back that his wife, brother James, and son Sylvester were dead and his house was destroyed. Following the shock of learning what had happened in Rosewood, Haywood rarely spoke to anyone but himself, and sometimes wandered away from his family unclothed.
His grandson, Arnett Goins, surmised grief had compromised his sanity. Haywood died a year after the massacre. Jesse Hunter, the escaped convict, was never found. Many survivors fled in different directions to other cities, and a few changed their names from fear that whites would track them down. None ever returned to live in Rosewood.
Fannie Taylor and her husband moved to another mill town. She was “very nervous” in her later years, until she succumbed to cancer. John Wright’s house was the only structure left standing in Rosewood. He lived in it and acted as an emissary between the county and the survivors. Almost all of their land was sold for taxes. Mary Jo Wright died around 1931; John developed a problem with alcohol. He was ostracized and taunted for assisting the survivors, and rumored to keep a gun in every room of his house. He died after drinking too much one night in Cedar Key, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Sumner.
The sawmill in Sumner burned down in 1925, and the owners moved it to Lacoochee in Pasco County. Many of the survivors and participants arrived in Lacoochee to work in the mill there. W. H. Pillsbury was among them, but he was also taunted by former Sumner residents. No longer having any supervisory authority, he was retired early by the company. He moved to Jacksonville and died in 1926.
Culture of silence
Despite nationwide news coverage in both white and black newspapers, the incident, and the small abandoned village, slipped into oblivion. Most of the survivors scattered around Florida cities and started over with nothing. Many, including children, took on odd jobs to make ends meet. Education had to be sacrificed to earn an income. As a result, most of the Rosewood survivors took on manual labor jobs, working as maids, shoe shiners, or in citrus factories or lumber mills.
Although the survivors’ experiences after Rosewood were disparate, none publicly acknowledged what had happened. Robie Mortin, Sam Carter’s niece, was seven years old when her father put her on a train to Chiefland, 20 miles (32 km) east of Rosewood, on January 3, 1923. Mortin’s father avoided the heart of Rosewood on the way to the depot that day, a decision Mortin believes saved their lives. Mortin’s father met them years later in Riviera Beach, in South Florida. None of the family ever spoke about the events in Rosewood, on order from Mortin’s grandmother: “She felt like maybe if somebody knew where we came from, they might come at us”.
This silence was an exception to the practice of oral history among black families. Minnie Lee Langley knew James and Emma Carrier as her parents. She kept the story from her children for 60 years: “I didn’t want them to know what I came through and I didn’t discuss it with none of them … I just didn’t want them to know what kind of way I come up. I didn’t want them to know white folks want us out of our homes.” Decades passed before she began to trust white people. Some families spoke of Rosewood, but forbade the stories from being told: Arnett Doctor heard the story from his mother, Philomena Goins Doctor, who was with Sarah Carrier the day Fannie Taylor claimed she was assaulted, and was in the house with Sylvester Carrier. She told her children about Rosewood every Christmas. Doctor was consumed by his mother’s story; he would bring it up to his aunts only to be dissuaded from speaking of it.
History includes Rosewood
Philomena Goins Doctor died in 1991. Her son was, by this time, “obsessed” with the events in Rosewood, and employed one of Florida’s largest legal firms to pursue the matter. In 1993, the firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of Arnett Goins, Minnie Lee Langley, and other survivors against the state government for its failure to protect them and their families. Survivors participated in a publicity campaign to direct attention to the case. Langley and Lee Ruth Davis appeared on The Maury Povich Show on Martin Luther King Day in 1993. Gary Moore wrote about Rosewood again in the Miami Herald later that year; he had to negotiate with the newspaper’s editors for about a year to publish it because they were skeptical that the incident had taken place. “If something like that really happened, we figured, it would be all over the history books”, an editor wrote.
Arnett Doctor told the story of Rosewood to print and television reporters from all over the world, embellishing some of the facts about how many people lived in Rosewood, how many died at the Carrier house siege, and its contemporary importance when he compared it to Atlanta, Georgia as a cultural center. Doctor was mindful of keeping Rosewood in the news; he gave reporters inflated facts and they were printed with few changes. According to historian Thomas Dye, Doctor’s “forceful addresses to groups across the state, including the NAACP, together with his many articulate and heart-rending television appearances, placed intense pressure on the legislature … to do something about Rosewood”. As publicity continued, additional survivors contacted the Holland & Knight law firm, who represented the descendants pro bono; by 1993, 13 survivors had come forward.
The lawsuit missed the filing deadline of January 1, so the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives commissioned a group to research and provide a report by which the equitable claim bill could be evaluated. On December 22, 1993, historians from Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and the University of Florida delivered a 100-page report (with 400 pages of attached documentation) on the Rosewood massacre. It was based on what primary documents could be used, and interviews mostly with black survivors of the incident; media attention the residents of Cedar Key and Sumner received as a result of the lawsuit discouraged white participants from offering interviews to the historians. The report used a taped description of the events by Jason McElveen, a Cedar Key resident who had since died, and an interview with Ernest Parham, who was in high school in 1923 and happened upon the lynching of Sam Carter. Parham said he had never spoken of the incident because he was never asked. The report was titled “Documented History of the Incident which Occurred at Rosewood, Florida in January 1923″. The historians delivered the report to the Florida Board of Regents and it became part of the legislative record.
Rosewood victims v. the State of Florida
Florida’s consideration of a bill to compensate victims of racial violence was the first by any U.S. state. Opponents argued that the bill set a dangerous precedent and put the onus of paying survivors and descendants on Floridians who had nothing to do with the incident in Rosewood. James Peters, who represented the State of Florida, argued that the statute of limitations applied because the law enforcement officials named in the lawsuit—Sheriff Walker and Governor Hardee—had died many years before. He also called into question the shortcomings of the report: although the historians were instructed not to write it with compensation in mind, they offered conclusions about the actions of Sheriff Walker and Governor Hardee. The report also depended upon investigations led by historians as opposed to legal experts; information at times depended on hearsay from witnesses who had died, and some of the report’s writers asked what critics thought were leading questions.
Even legislators who agreed with the sentiment of the bill asserted that the events in Rosewood were typical of the era. One survivor interviewed by Gary Moore shared this view: to single out Rosewood as an exception, as if the entire world was not a Rosewood, she said, would be “vile”. Florida Representatives Al Lawson and Miguel De Grandy argued that unlike similar atrocities against Native Americans or slaves, the residents of Rosewood were tax-paying, self-sufficient citizens who deserved the protection of local and state law enforcement. While lynchings of blacks by mobs around the same time were spontaneous and quickly concluded, the incident at Rosewood was prolonged over several days. Some legislators began to receive hate mail, including some claiming to be from Ku Klux Klan members. One legislator remarked that his office received an unprecedented response to the bill, with ten constituents to one opposing it.
In 1994, the state legislature held a hearing to discuss the merits of bill. Lee Ruth Davis died a few months before testimony began, but Minnie Lee Langley, Arnett Goins, Wilson Hall, Willie Evans, and several descendants testified, as did a clinical psychologist from the University of Florida, and experts who offered testimony about property damages. Langley’s testimony was first; the hearing room was packed with journalists and onlookers who were reportedly mesmerized by her statement. Ernest Parham also testified about what he saw. When asked specifically when he was contacted by law enforcement regarding the death of Sam Carter, Parham replied that he had been contacted for the first time two weeks before testifying. The coroner’s inquest for Sam Carter had taken place the day after he was shot, and concluded that he had been killed “by Unknown Party”.
After hearing all the evidence, the Special Master Richard Hixson, who presided over the testimony for the Florida Legislature, declared that the state had a “moral obligation” to make restitution to the former residents of Rosewood. He stated, “I truly don’t think they cared about compensation. I think they simply wanted the truth to be known about what happened to them … whether they got fifty cents or a hundred and fifty million dollars. It didn’t matter.”
Black and Hispanic legislators in Florida took on the Rosewood compensation bill as a cause, and refused to support Governor Lawton Chiles‘ healthcare plan until he put pressure on House Democrats to vote for the bill. Chiles was offended, as he had supported the compensation bill from its early days, and the legislative caucuses had previously promised their support for his healthcare plan. The legislature passed the bill, and Governor Chiles signed the Rosewood Compensation Bill, a $2.1 million package to compensate survivors and their descendants. Seven survivors and their family members were present at the signing to hear Chiles say, “Because of the strength and commitment of these survivors and their families, the long silence has finally been broken and the shadow has been lifted … Instead of being forgotten, because of their testimony, the Rosewood story is known across our state and across our nation. This legislation assures that the tragedy of Rosewood will never be forgotten by the generations to come.”
Originally, the compensation total offered to survivors was a controversial $7 million. The legislature eventually settled on $1.5 million: to pay $150,000 to each person who could prove he or she lived in Rosewood during 1923, and a $500,000 pool for people who could apply for the funds after demonstrating that they had an ancestor who owned property in Rosewood during the same time. The four survivors who testified automatically qualified; four others had to apply.
More than 400 applications were received from around the world. Robie Mortin came forward as a survivor during this time; she was the only one added to the list who could prove she lived in Rosewood, totaling nine survivors who were compensated. Gaining compensation changed some families, whose members began to fight among themselves. Some descendants refused it, while others went into hiding to avoid the press of friends and relatives who came asking for handouts. Some descendants, after dividing the funds among siblings, received not much more than $100 each. Later, the Florida Department of Education set up the Rosewood Family Scholarship Fund for Rosewood descendants and ethnic minorities.
In 2004, the State of Florida declared Rosewood a Florida Heritage Landmark and erected a historical marker on State Road 24 that names the victims and describes the community’s destruction. Scattered structures remain within the community, including a church, a business, and a few homes. Robie Mortin, the last survivor, died on June 12, 2010 after a brief illness. She was 94.
Rosewood descendants formed the Real Rosewood Foundation and the Rosewood Heritage Foundation to educate people in Florida and all over the world. A traveling display of what happened in Rosewood goes on tour internationally; a permanent display is housed in the library of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. The Real Rosewood Foundation awards people in Central Florida who preserve Rosewood’s history. The foundation bestowed the Robert Walker Unsung Heroes award, named for Sheriff Walker, to his niece to honor her uncle’s actions. Another award was named for John and William Bryce. The foundation makes humanitarian awards in honor of, and in the names of, Sarah, Aaron, and Sylvester Carrier. Lizzie Jenkins, whose aunt was the Rosewood schoolteacher, explained her participation keeping Rosewood’s legacy current:
“It has been a struggle telling this story over the years, because a lot of people don’t want to hear about this kind of history. People don’t relate to it, or just don’t want to hear about it. But Mama told me to keep it alive, so I keep telling it … It’s a sad story, but it’s one I think everyone needs to hear.”
Rosewood: The last survivor remembers an American tragedy
by Dr. Marvin Dunn | January 4, 2012
Dr. Marvin Dunn interviews the last survivor of Rosewood and sheds new light on the event that still haunts African-Americans.
She was the last person alive with a living memory of Rosewood the north Florida black town that was consumed in racial rage this week more than eight decades ago. She was eight when it happened and her memory was as clear as a bell. Robie Mortin and I were friends. I met her well into her nineties living in an assisted living complex in West Palm Beach where what was left of her family settled after the event.
“I was in third grade,” she once told me. “I could read and write. I remember everything;” like playing in her aunt Sarah Carrier’s yard every Sunday after church, like the plum trees that grew in her yard, like getting apples at Christmas and dancing and playing games on Emancipation Day; and the night the mob burned the town down.
Mortin had never gone back except for a short visit when the governor and state officials dedicated a historic marker on Highway 24, but that was not to touch the ground, to smell the woods or to go to the old graveyard where her mother is buried. But in 2008 she allowed me to take her back twice and she showed me everything.
We walked the railroad bed where the rails had been moved many years ago but the raised rail bed still runs true through the woods like a green tunnel; to the place where the Masonic lodge stood which was the building in which she attended school; and to that graveyard that not only holds her mother’s bones but those of many Rosewood pioneers and victims. Her aunt Sarah who was killed during those terrible days is there. So is her uncle, Sam Carter who was the first person to be killed in the massacre. She lived in his house.
She recalled the cold night the mobs came. The moon was full and bright; so bright you could see shadows at mid-night. “My daddy told us to get up and put on all of our heavy clothes. He said the people were shooting and they had to get out of Rosewood.”
A lot of people had to get out of Rosewood that night. Mortin and her aunt Polly, Sam Carter’s mother, were fortunate. They made it to the train depot from which they escaped to Chiefland about twenty miles away. Many others spent several freezing nights hiding in the dank woods trying to avoid the mobs.
Rosewood had been the perfect storm for racial violence. All of the usual suspects applied, an alleged sexual attack by a black man on a white woman, a black man with an attitude and lots of friends who had guns, economic jealousy because many blacks in Rosewood were doing better than the back woods whites who lived around them and the killing by blacks of a white law enforcement officer.
It had all been a lie. Mortin had heard the stories over the years. The white woman, Fannie Taylor was having an affair and almost got caught when her lover beat her one morning while her husband was at work. Fannie said a black man did it and that was all it took. Over the following week hundreds of white men descended upon Rosewood vengeance in mind and torches in hand. Sylvester Carrier would emerge as the hero of the moment. He gathered up his family and hunkered down in his mother’s large two-story home. He was a Mason.
“Almost all of the men out there were Masons”, Mortin recalled. The night the mob came to the Carrier House an unknown number of heavily armed black men were waiting. Some were hidden in the woods. It was a gathering of Masons. When it was all over eight people were dead including Sylvester and his mother Sarah, Robie’s aunt.
She and Sam Carter’s mother moved to Riviera Beach which had become home to many Rosewood survivors.
“The old black cemetery in Riviera Beach is filled with Rosewood folks,” she once told me. In June of 2010 she joined them. On my way to Rosewood I had seen her the day before she died in a hospice facility in West Palm Beach. No one else was left who could remember what happened that desperately cold night in 1923.
What she left behind was a loving family and a many grateful friends, including me.
Rosewood, Florida, today
Published on May 10, 2012
I visit Rosewood, Florida, the site of a horrific racist massacre in 1923. A white mob burned down the town belonging to their black neighbors, murdered them, and pillaged their belongings. Little trace is left but people do live there quietly, and I battled the seasonal swarm of lovebugs to shoot video of it. Read about my full visit at http://jason-cochran.com/blog/hidden-….
Black History Is American History. But AmeriKKKan History Is NOT Black History.
Black History Month 2014
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