Attack on U.S. Capitol Highlights Parallels with Nation’s Dark Past on the 98th Anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre
Many Americans are asking how all citizens can expect full protection under the law when it is clear that law is not applied equally.
Nia Clark | TV Reporter, Podcast Host
January 6th, 2021 was truly one of the darkest days in our nation’s modern history. As Congress gathered to do their constitutional duty of counting the Electoral College votes — an otherwise procedural matter — and certify former Vice President Joe Biden as President, the world watched in horror as America’s own citizens began an hours long siege on our nation’s Capitol. Amid the chaos, one woman was shot and killed, three others died from medical emergencies and two “suspected explosive devices” were found in the area while the rioters and members of the mob responsible for all of it walked free for hours before D.C. Police began making arrests.
It cannot be overlooked that the betrayal of America by its own citizens, some of whom have been tied to right-wing extremist groups that espouse racist, hateful and violent rhetoric, comes amid the the 98th anniversary of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre. The day after that betrayal, January 7, 2021, marks the anniversary of the last day of the Massacre, which lasted an entire week.
Image of a Rosewood home being burned during the Rosewood massacre January 4, 1923. Image courtesy of Florida State Archives
Image of a Rosewood home being burned during the Rosewood massacre January 4, 1923. Image courtesy of Florida State Archives
On that day a mob completed its task of burning down whatever was left of the once- predominantly African American, rural, self-sufficient town of Rosewood, Florida, which had become the site of a racially motivated massacre 7 days prior. A number of the rural hamlet’s Black residents were lynched and killed.
The catalyst for the Rosewood Massacre were the January 1, 1923 allegations of assault by a white woman. 22-year-old Fanny Taylor who lived in Sumner, Florida alleged that she had been beaten by a Black man. Historians claim that Taylor actually had a white lover who was responsible for her beating and lied about the incident to cover up the affair.
Nevertheless, law enforcement officials believed that Black man was an escaped member of a chain gain named Jesse Hunter and assumed the Black community of Rosewood just a few miles away was hiding him.
Taylor’s husband gathered a posse to search for the alleged culprit and began a reign of terror over the African American community of Rosewood that culminated with on last fiery barrage on January 7, 1923. Accounts of the death toll vary, ranging from less than 10 people to more than 100.
Nearly everything had been burned to the ground. Homes, churches, community structures. The only property that was spared was that of the town’s white general store owner, John Wright. He is credited with hiding many of Rosewood’s victims in his home during the massacre.
As the chaos unfolded, local law enforcement officials not only stood by and watched but deputized some members of the mob who committed the atrocities. When Florida Governor Cary Hardee offered to send in the National Guard as backup, Sheriff Robert Elias Walker declined the help and ensured the governor that he had the situation under control. The massacre was essentially state sanctioned terror.
You can read a more detailed account of the Rosewood Massacre here.
How did we get here?
Undoubtedly, many Americans woke up on January 7th asking how our nation got to this point. Understanding the Rosewood Massacre can help us begin to answer that question by connecting past events with present events that appear to be inextricably linked. Especially, a state sanctioned atrocity such as Rosewood that occurred exactly 98 years before the overtaking of our nation’s Capitol while our federal law enforcement apparatus was no where to be found.
Witnessing the attack on our nation’s Capitol hearkens back to the dark days of our nation’s past when domestic terror, particularly that targeting Black and Brown people, was often sanctioned and aided by members of local, state and federal government officials.
The world witnessed rioters (at minimum) overthrow the Capitol of the most powerful nation on earth with ease; continue to desecrate the Capitol and commit untold numbers of crimes live and in real time on television and social media for all the world to see with ease; and, when finished, proceed to stroll around the grounds of the Capitol with ease.
The world viewed footage of an unidentified man carrying a Confederate flag through the Capitol building during the day’s violent scene. Stanford professor Sam Wineburg made the observation that it was the first time the flag had been flown within the halls of the Capitol.
The same Confederate flag that symbolized solidarity among 11 states that seceded from US after election of President Abraham Lincoln was elected, went to battle to form a new a nation that would limit the powers of central government and preserve the institution of slavery. The parallels of this past with the attack on the Capitol are chilling.
Photos of an unmasked, unidentified man carrying a large Confederate flag on the second floor of the Capitol building were shared widely on Twitter by journalists on the ground during Wednesday’s violent scene, with Stanford professor Sam Wineburg noting that it was the first time the flag had been publicly carried within the halls of the Capitol.
The world witnessed as a mob successfully overthrew the Capitol, attempt to overturn an election and inflict harm on our elected officials, their staff and the most important building in the nation for hours without fear and with seeming impunity.
The world witnessed video footage that showed some law enforcement officials taking selfies with rioters and treating them as if they were tourists at the same Capitol they had just overthrown.
Just over six months prior in early June of 2020 when Black Lives Matter activists were preparing to protest on the Capitol, there were plenty of militarized guards and law enforcement officials who were guarding the Capitol and on standby prior to the event.
Throughout the summer, images of Black Lives Matter protesters confronting a massive show of police force in cities across the country during demonstrations over police killings of unarmed Black men and women streamed across television screens and social media sites. Some demonstrators were shot with rubber bullets. Others, including mothers in Portland, were tear gassed.
There was no such police presence during the attack on our nation’s Capitol, which has some civil rights activists blasting law enforcement agencies for their slow response.
Hours later after law enforcement secured the Capitol, most of those who were complicit or responsible for the rioting and insurrection walked away, not in handcuffs or in the custody of any law enforcement agency, but as free men and women.
All because those men and women do not believe that every American citizen is in fact American. They do not believe that American citizens who don’t subscribe to their ideological leanings should be entitled to full citizenship as our Constitution stipulates, including the right to vote.
Those men and women would rather carry out a planned, coordinated insurrection and attempted coup at our nation’s Capitol than admit that a free and fair election was in fact free and fair and that their preferred candidate lost.
There is precedent for their actions. One only need look to the past century and a half to find it.
The Past Meets the Present
Similar to the domestic terrorism carried out at the U.S. Capitol, the demise of Rosewood was a symptom of larger trends that had been brewing in the country for decades.
Most of them centered around disenfranchising Black Americans by denying them the same right to full citizenship that the mob at our nation’s Capitol attempted to deny each and every American who voted in the 2020 general election and exercised their Constitutional right to vote as stipulated under the 26th Amendment.
In the decades prior to the Rosewood Massacre, the nation underwent an extreme identity shift. Following the Civil War in the 1860’s — the Republican Party in Washington — home of former abolitionists — pushed for Black legal rights and social equality in the South and enacted a series of constitutional amendments and reconstruction acts that ensured protections for former slaves. The decade of 1867–1877 was dubbed the period of Radical Reconstruction during which Congress granted African American men the status and rights of citizenship, which includes the right to vote as guaranteed under the 14th and 15th amendments.
Rosewood Massacre victims, Sarah Carrier (left), Sylvester Carrier (standing) and his sister Willie Carrier (right), taken around 1910
Rosewood Massacre victims, Sarah Carrier (left), Sylvester Carrier (standing) and his sister Willie Carrier (right), taken around 1910
In 1875 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed that everyone in the U.S. regardless of race was quote, “entitled to the full and equal enjoyment” of public accommodations and facilities. Together, these amendments — known as the Reconstruction statutes — gave free blacks access to federal courts if their rights were violated.
In an interview with NPR, constitutional scholar Lawrence Goldstone said “What the radical Republicans wanted, led by Charles Sumner in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens in the House, was probably the largest experiment in social engineering ever taken. They wanted the federal government to take these four million newly freed slaves and integrate them fully into society virtually immediately.”
The Reconstruction statues produced an explosion of Black Americans in political life. During the state constitutional conventions in 1867–1869, for the first time Black and white Americans held political office side by side. African Americans made up the majority of southern Republicans. A total of 265 African-American delegates were elected, more than 100 of whom were born into slavery. In all, 16 African Americans served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction; more than 600 more were elected to the state legislatures, and hundreds more held local offices across the South.
Black Americans understood that in order to improve their station in life in the years following slavery, they needed to have voting power. However, the the political engagement of African Americans sparked backlash from opponents of Reconstruction, particularly Southern whites. They opposed many of the policies that gave formerly enslaved Blacks the right to vote and hold office. They resorted to intimidation and violence as a way to uphold white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan targeted Republican office holders and African Americans who who challenged their white employers. Historians believe the Klan and other white supremacist organizations are responsible for the murders of at least 35 Black officials during the Reconstruction era.
Freedmen Voting in New Orleans” 1867 engraving showing African Americans who hade been enslaved but a couple years later participating in election
Within the next several years America began to witness the dismantling of Reconstruction as a direct response to the progress Black Americans had been making following the end of slavery and the rise of Jim Crow. African Americans who were able to succeed economically or rise above their station in life were often considered a threat to architects of the mechanisms that disenfranchised Blacks.
Across the South, including in Florida where Rosewood is located, lawmakers went to great lengths to enact or enforce laws in such a way as to create a dependence of African Americans on white supremacists. They were aided by the very judicial system that was entrusted with the duty of protecting the legal rights of all Americans.
Goldstone’s book, Inherently Unequal, examines how the Supreme Court’s decisions in cases pertaining to these amendments suppressed the civil rights movement in the later half of the 1800’s and enabled the poor treatment of African Americans in the South for decades to come. This is, in part, why Reconstruction could not deliver the protections for Blacks they were intended to. The Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights act of 1875 unconstitutional in 1883. The high court also said Congress lacked the constitutional authority under the fourteenth amendment to grant equal protections under the law to Blacks, instead giving that authority to states and local governments.
Similarly, in The Death of Voting Rights: the Legal Disenfranchisement of Minority Voters by Virginia E. Hencht notes that, “direct de jure ballot exclusion of the freedmen was illegal. Violence, intimidation, and fraud persisted, however, and white supremacists quickly sought legal but indirect hurdles to minority voting,” including the manipulation of voting requirements. De jure ballot exclusion in this context means African Americans’ access to the ballot box was blocked because of laws and policies that enabled that to happen.
It goes on to explain that states were unable to bar freedman (free blacks) from voting outright without risking the reduction of their state’s representation in Congress as a penalty. Some southerners created “whites-only” primaries, effectively guaranteeing that the general election would be a runoff between the preferred white candidates and ensuring that minority voters did not have a candidate that advocated for their concerns.
Some states attempted to circumvent laws that struck down the white primary system by manipulating voting laws in order to disenfranchise blacks. Arkansas for example imposed lengthy residence requirements, which limited party membership to whites and established separate primaries and run-off elections for blacks and whites. Additionally, non-party members could only vote in primaries if they practiced complete racial segregation, outlined in the state’s 1874 Arkansas Constitution. Such voters also had to abide by a ban on interracial marriage and payment of a poll tax.
By the early 1900’s most states with sizable populations of free blacks had enacted poll taxes that reduced the number of eligible Black voters since many poor blacks could not afford the tax. Literacy or “understanding” tests used to further disenfranchise Blacks legally, many of whom could not read, while presenting the appearance of neutrality also became quite common. “Grandfather” and “old soldier” clauses made it easier to further disenfranchise blacks without disenfranchising whites by exempting certain people from the application of literacy tests and other voting restrictions.
They included, anyone who served in the U.S. or Confederate army or navy, their descendants , as well as anyone who had voted, or whose father or grandfather had voted before January 1, 1867. Mostly whites fought for the Confederacy. And while the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery was passed in 1865 and the fourteenth amendment, which granted citizenship to all people born in the U.S., including former slaves, was passed in 1866 and ratified in 1868; the fifteenth amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote, wasn’t passed until 1869 and ratified until 1870.
The Promise of Full Citizenship
Notwithstanding the hostility toward Black progress, dozens upon dozens of independent Black communities began to emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some Researchers estimate that a century ago, there may have been as many as 500 black municipalities. The Historic Black Towns and Settlement Alliance estimates an even greater number of Black towns and settlements. The organization says, “More than 1200 Black settlements, enclaves, and towns were established in the United States between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. More than five hundred settlements were established with the physical elements and cultural institutions in a town format.
Regardless of the numbers, these towns represent an important, if untold, chapter of American history. As the Alliance notes, the separate Black towns “represented radical options when they were founded in the nineteenth century. They incorporated self-government and independent enterprise into streams of African American ritual and tradition.”
Many African Americans in these communities were determined enjoy the rights of full citizenship. They strove to earn an honest, decent living. Many of these communities were industrious and its residents sought out entrepreneurial means to achieve upward mobility. With millions of blacks free to hold political office, generate income and pursue an education, many Blacks, including those in Rosewood, Tulsa, Knoxville, Durham, Jackson Ward — Richmond, Birmingham and elsewhere did just that.
Blacks in Rosewood for example, owned land and property. They were experts in agrarian society, cultivating the soil, growing crops and raising livestock. They were skilled in various trades such as trapping animals and fishing. There was a bank in Rosewood. There was a water tower. There were churches and an education system. There was a Masonic lodge and two general stores.
What also set Rosewood apart from other Black communities was Rosewood’s proximity to the railroad, which was used to ship products in and out of town. This helped fuel economic growth in Rosewood such that some researchers believe a large portion of Rosewood’s early Black community members resembled middle-class prosperity.
This was enough to fuel resentment from racists and segregationists who believed Blacks should remain in a subservient station in life. The sentiment was compounded with increasingly hostile racial tensions across the country.
At the time of the Rosewood Massacre, it was not uncommon for unsubstantiated allegations of harm involving of Blacks people to lead to racial violence. While the events that led to the destruction of Rosewood were set in motion by allegations of black male aggression perpetrated against an innocent white woman, as was the case with thousands of lynchings and massacres, in reality, the Massacre was part of a larger pattern of efforts to reinforce white supremacy and disenfranchise African Americans.
Dozens upon dozens of documented racially motivated massacres, riots and the racial cleansing of scores of Black communities were the result of racial hatred and resentment toward Black progress. They were meant to help erase many of the gains African Americans had made as a result of policies instituted under Reconstruction. These attacks coupled with state sanctioned political and economic disenfranchisement, worked to stifle any growth Blacks and minorities had experienced since the end of the Civil War.
The root of the problem
The Rosewood Massacre was the symptom of the centuries long problem of racism, which our nation has yet to fully reconcile with. While it was a heinous act even by the racist standards of the Jim Crow South, it did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred in a time and place where Black life was treated as disposable, the disposing of Black life was widely glorified. In the case of Rosewood and thousands of other cases of racially motivated violence, it was almost always the case that no one was ever held accountable or brought to Justice.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, was released. The film’s subjective portrayal and revisionist depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction was explicitly racist and is regarded as one of the most offensive films ever made. At the time of its release however, millions of people flocked to theaters to see it. While it caused riots in several cities and was banned in others, the film is credited with sparking the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
In fact, in the years leading up to the Rosewood Massacre, so-called race riots (which often, more accurately resembled massacres) had broken out across the country. The year of 1919, was dubbed the Red Summer on account of the more than two dozen racially-motivated riots, massacres and acts of violence that targeted Black communities that year.
The growing hostility Blacks experienced in the Jim Crow South helped sparked what what became known as the “Great Migration” in which about 6 million African Americans migrated from the South between about 1916 and 1970 to the North, Midwest and West. Blacks left the South to escape racially-motivated violence for which they could not depend on law enforcement to protect them from. They also sought higher paying work and the right to vote without the constant fear of retaliation.
Lynchings rose dramatically and coincided with efforts to reimpose segregation following WWI. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 people lynched in the United States, and over 70 percent of them African-Americans.
While Alabama and Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings, from 1900 to 1930, Florida, which is where Rosewood is located, had the highest ratio of lynchings per capita. Per capita means the average per person and is often used in place of “per person” in statistical observances.
In a 2015, in a Broward Palm Beach New Times article about Florida’s high rate of lynchings, University of Florida professor Jack Davis, who has written about Florida lynchings, tells New Times, “Black men were more at risk of being lynched in Florida than any other state.”
In, “Rosewood and America in the Early Twentieth Century,” historian David R. Colburn writes, ”the superiority of the American way of life was not so obvious if one looked below the surface and especially if one talked to black Americans,” Colburn said. “Racial and ethnic tensions were widespread, and no amount of rhetoric could hide or diminish them.”
Compounding racial hostility was widespread resentment against African Americans, particularly Black men, who had returned home after WWI expecting better treatment after having served their country.
When the story of Rosewood is told today, the question is often asked how such a thing could be allowed to happen. When considering the historical backdrop, the answers are illuminated.
It becomes easier to see how four Black men in McClenny, Florida are removed from the local jail and lynched for the alleged rape of a white woman in August of 1920.
It becomes easier to see how at least seven people could be killed and the Black community of Ocoee, Florida destroyed during the Ocoee Massacre following a dispute over voting rights of Ocoee’s Black citizens in November of 1920.
It becomes easier to see how a Black man in Wauchula, Florida could be lynched for allegedly attacking a white woman in February of 1921.
It becomes easier to see how a Black man in Perry, Florida could be burned at the stake, and a number of structures in the Black community also burned, after that man was accused of murdering a white school teacher in December of 1922 — just two weeks before the Rosewood Massacre.
Full Protection Under the Law
Political and economic disenfranchisement was key to stripping power from Blacks. Any effort to organize, be it for wages, or the right to vote, was often crushed with state sanctioned violence. This was only possible because Blacks rarely, if ever, had the full protection of local and federal law enforcement.
It was unsettling to watch as trespassers stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden as president, attacked resisters and police, looted the grounds, ransacked offices desecrated the House and Senate chambers and and committed untold numbers of crimes.
It was even more unsettling to watch as Congressmen and women along with their their staff hid in closets, in the chamber’s balcony and other undisclosed locations as rioters walked armed throughout the American people’s Capitol waiting hours for law enforcement to provide them will full protection they are afforded under the law.
Millions of Americans watched in disbelief at the fearless attitude of the perpetrators, most of whom seemed to believe they would not be punished.
Though inexcusable and indefensible, an examination of our nations history, specifically with regards to race relations, might quell some of the shock generated by the actions of the mob that overthrew our nation’s Capitol.
Certain segments of the population have been carrying out acts of violence towards fellow Americans for decades with little accountability. Black and Brown people in this country were emancipated with the promise of full protection under the law, only to find that the law was not applied equally to their lives.
Furthermore, the violent, abhorrent rhetoric leading up to January 6, 2021 was predicable. Plans for the attack were reportedly discussed online by the perpetrators for weeks.
Anyone could see that violence was possible. U.S. Representative Linda Sanchez (D-California) knew enough to tell her husband the night before the insurrection where her will and last testament were in the event something terrible should happen.
U.S. Representative Nancy Mace (R-South Carolina), the first U.S. Congresswoman to be elected in her state, flew her children into Washington, D.C. so that they could watch her be sworn in. She sent them back home on a plane two days before the insurrection because she was disturbed by the rhetoric she was seeing.
Much will be investigated and many questions will be ask. Perhaps we should all be asking how all Americans, regardless of identity or political ideology, can continue to expect full protection under the law when that law is not applied equally, not even when the nation’s Capitol is under assault by its own citizens.
Nia Hamm is a TV Reporter and the host of the Dreams of Black Wall Street Podcast.