Remembering Rosewood  Massacre 100 years later. What Have We Learned

The Rosewood Massacre is a tragic story most of us don’t know.

It’s a shameful story of racial violence people didn’t want to hear. And so we never did. It lay buried for more than half a century.

I never learned about it in school. Nobody did.

Most of our children still won’t learn it in the classroom. Certainly not in the state of Florida where this horror occurred. Governed by a racist like Ron De Santis, Florida state law makes it illegal to teach critical race theory under the guise it shields schoolchildren from information that could distort historical events.

It is unlikely the story of Rosewood will be taught in its classrooms when children return from Christmas vacations this week.

Burning of a home in Rosewood, Florida 1923

It’s been exactly 100 years since the Rosewood, Florida massacre that destroyed an entire black town that took place the first week in January.

On Jan 1, 1923, the small town in Levy County, Florida was a thriving community of mostly African American residents. Seven days later it was gone, burned to the ground by an angry white mob.

On New Year’s Day 1923 a 22-year-old married white woman named Fannie Taylor who lived in a neighboring town of Sumner, falsely claimed a Black man had beaten her.

Some Black people who worked in Sumner said the real story was that Taylor had been beaten by her (white) lover and simply used the story of a Black man hitting her to hide her affair from her husband.

Rumors spread as fast as the hate.

Happy New Year?

A white posse of several hundred men including members from the local KKK in nearby Gainesville formed on New Year’s Day. They combed the countryside hunting for Black people, carrying out lynchings of African Americans, and burning the town to the ground over the course of a week. For several days, survivors from the town hid in nearby swamps until they were evacuated to larger towns by train and car.

The posse ravaged the Black community looking for vengeance or, as some argued later, just to destroy what Blacks had built. The whites threatened some people; they beat some; they killed some. They also ignored whether any of the people hurt or killed were innocent.

After all, Black lives don’t matter.

Hatred created a path, and whites followed it.

Their violence continued for days, and once it ended, Rosewood was no different than Tulsa a year earlier: a wasteland of smoldering homes and businesses, not to mention dismembered corpses, in its wake.

Unlike Tulsa, Rosewood never rebuilt itself.

No arrests were made for what happened in Rosewood.

While a grand jury convened in February 1923 no convictions were made and all records were lost. The town was abandoned by its former Black and white residents; none of them ever moved back, none of them were ever compensated for the loss of their land, and the town ceased to exist.

Despite how horrifying the massacre was, the story faded away almost immediately after the violence ceased. The story nearly vanished until 1982 — when a journalist for the St. Petersburg Times published an exposé.

More African Americans were lynched in Florida than in any other southern State. (L) The body of Rubin Stacy hanging from a tree in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, July 19, 1935. He was lynched by a mob for allegedly attacking a white woman. Rt) What will the children say? page courtesy NY Public Library

It’s not news that Americans have a long history of torturing and killing Black people. Often sparked by false accusations.

Rosewood and its destruction did not exist in a vacuum. It was part of a much larger history of racial violence in American history.

In the early twentieth century, there were rashes of targeted violence by white mobs to destroy black communities. In 1919 there were so many attacks between May and August that writer James Weldon Johnson termed it “The Red Summer.”

Tulsa Race Riot. “Little Africa on Fire” June 1. 1921 Postcard: University of Tulsa/McFarlin Library Collection

Only one of these events has become part of our spoken cultural history thanks in part to movies and books.

The Tulsa massacre of 1921 in which thousands of white people stormed the city’s Greenwood district and burned it to the ground leaving thousands homeless and killing over 300 African Americans.

Vanishing Act

The story of Rosewood nearly vanished. A lot of people will learn about this racially motivated massacre of Black people here for the first time here.

This is part of America’s history.

It is up to us to commit it to memory.

We owe it to the dead and the displaced.

This racially motivated attack is now known as the Rosewood Massacre.

Remember its name.

Note

Justice would take seven decades until a 1994 decision by the state of Florida to pay compensation to survivors and descendants of Rosewood.

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