On the 98th Anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre: Understanding the Backlash to Black Progress
Nearly a century later, one of the the most infamous incidents of racial terror in the United States remains a case study in the centuries-long struggle for African Americans to realize full citizenship.
The once-primarily Black, rural, self-sufficient town of Rosewood, Florida was a bright spot of Black independence existing amid the dark shadows of the Jim Crow South.
“I see Rosewood as being an economically diverse community,” said archeologist and University of Florida lecturer Dr. Edward Gonzalez-Tennant.
“There’s a mix of houses. There’s industries. We know there’s turpentine stills there. We know there are saw mills… orange groves, market gardens, a train Depot, a post office,” he said. “The list starts to build until you have a picture in your head, almost of like what an old West town was like, because the architecture would have actually been similar in this part of Florida, particularly in the 1870s and even into the early 20th century,” Dr. Gonzalez-Tennant said.
A lie and a Massacre
Exactly 98 years ago, the dark shadows of the Jim Crow South eclipsed Rosewood’s light during the first week of January 1923 when the town became the site of a racially motivated massacre of a number of the town’s African American residents and the destruction of the rural hamlet. Accounts of the death toll vary, ranging from less than 10 people to more than 100.
“And of course, what goes away when something like that is destroyed or displaced is all the wealth that’s accumulated,” Gonzalez-Tennant said during a recent interview. “And that doesn’t mean right, that Rosewood is necessarily a wealthy community. But if you’re an African-American in 1920s, America, and you own your own property, you own your own business, imagine what that would’ve meant for your grandchildren had they been able to inherit any of that even just empty property.” he said.
On January 1, 1923, a 22-year-old woman who lived in Sumner, Florida named Fannie Taylor, alleged that she had been beaten by a Black man. Some historical accounts claim that Taylor actually had a white lover who was responsible for her beating and lied about the incident to cover up the affair.
“The basic story was that Fannie Taylor was going with an unidentified white man and his name was Bradley, his last name was Bradley,” said historian and archivist, Sherry Sherrod DuPree of the Rosewood Heritage Foundation.
“She had scars and she could not allow her husband to come back from the mill to find her scarred and beaten,” said DuPree. So she claimed that an African-American man assaulted her and it was an unidentified Black man. And of course, her husband was upset.”
Taylor’s husband, James Taylor who was a foreman at the local mill, gathered an angry mob of white citizens to hunt town the alleged attacker, which included a group of about 500 Ku Klux Klan members who were in nearby Gainesville for a rally. Law enforcement officials believed a Black prisoner named Jesse Hunter, who had recently escaped a chain gang, was the culprit and was being hidden by Black residents.
Aaron Carrier lived in Rosewood, which was just a few miles from Sumner. He was the nephew of a woman named Sarah Carrier. The Carriers were among Rosewood’s most prominent families.
Many people who lived in Rosewood were domestic workers for white families in Sumner or worked in the sawmill in Sumner.
In search of the man who beat Fanny Taylor, Bloodhounds led a mob to Aaron Carrier’s family home where he was assaulted by a mob until the sheriff intervened. Aaron Carrier was taken to nearby Gainesville and placed into custody.
A mob also descended upon the home of a blacksmith in Rosewood named Sam Carter. He was tortured into admitting to hiding Hunter and agreed to take the mob to the hiding spot. When the mob realized Hunter wasn’t there, Carter was shot and lynched. In fact, some of his body parts were taken as souvenirs.
Unsatisfied, and seemingly driven by bloodlust, on January 4th, a mob showed up to Sarah Carrier’s house accusing the family of hiding Hunter.
A gun fight broke out between members of the mob and Sarah’s son, Sylvester Carrier. Two white attackers were shot and killed. Sarah Carrier was shot and killed.
“Now, one thing needs to be said about Sarah had breastfed most of those young men that were out there and she thought she could talk to them and calm them down to leave,” DuPree said. “And that’s why she went to the window, to talk to them. This is what family said. And so she knew all of them just about by name,” she said.
Sarah Carrier’s son, Sylvester, was allegedly also shot and killed. However, relatives and survivors contended that Sylvester, who was known for his excellent marksmanship, actually escaped Rosewood after the firefight. A thought, that has never been verified.
The shooting lasted through the night. Other relatives and children inside the home had escaped through the back and found safe haven in the woods where they hid for several days.
News of the standoff at the Carrier home spread like wildfire. Another mob poured into Rosewood, wreaking havoc on the community burning down buildings, including churches. Houses were set on fire while and residents were shot and killed trying to escape. Many other residents of Rosewood fled to the swamps where some of them hid for days.
On January 7th, a mob returned to burn down whatever had not been destroyed in Rosewood at that point, except for the home of Rosewood’s white general store owner, John Wright. He is credited with hiding many of Rosewood’s escapees in his home during the massacre.
Although it was national news when the story broke, once the violence ceased, Rosewood quickly disappeared from the public discourse. For decades most people, other than survivors and some relatives, had little to no knowledge of the Rosewood Massacre.
Florida State University History Professor, Dr. Maxine Jones worked as the principal author of a report on “The Rosewood Incident” for the Florida Legislature in 1993, which was part of the evidence that was considered before the state of Florida awarded Rosewood families compensation for the ordeal two years later
Dr. Jones said Rosewood survivors who she interviewed for the report told her they deliberately chose not to share the truth of the massacre with most people for years.
“…Many of the Rosewood survivors, they grew up in fear,” Dr. Jones said. “They knew the power of whites. They lived in fear…that the whites from that region could still reach them, could still touch them. And that’s one of the reasons why this story was buried for so long.”
The story remained buried until a newspaper article was published about the tragedy in the St. Petersburg Times in 1982. There was also a 60 minutes television story in 1983.
The national coverage and testimony of living survivors led to the passage of a claims bill that compensated survivors and descendants for the traumatic incident. However by this time, most of the survivors were in their 80’s or 90’s. The end result was a bill awarding Rosewood family members $2 million dollars and an educational fund for descendants of Rosewood.
“I am proud of the work that we did.,” Dr. Jones said upon reflecting on her team’s contribution to the claims bill.
“The people that we needed to find, we were able to find. And, if nothing else, the Rosewood families got to tell their story and the world was really interested in that story at that time. And I’m glad we were able to contribute in some way.”
Stephen Hanlon, one of the attorneys who represented the Rosewood survivors and their descendants, agrees.
“I’d say that it was critical what Maxine Jones did,” Hanlon said. “It was critical to have the education part. You know, we’re a nation without a common history. It’s very hard to be a nation and not have a common history. We have two very distinct histories. The vast majority of the American people are, and I hate to say this functionally illiterate about the role of race in America,” he said.
According to some historians, the massacre of Rosewood is the only racially-motivated act of mass violence that has lead to some sort of compensation.
“Reparations is a loaded word, more loaded back then than it is now,” Hanlon said. “And we just couldn’t use that, but there’s no question that it is the functional equivalent of reparations for what had happened. You’re repairing the damage. In form it was compensation in substance. It was reparations,” he said.
Rosewood, the community
The Rosewood Massacre did not occur in a vacuum. At the time, it was not uncommon for unsubstantiated allegations of harm involving of Blacks people to lead to racial violence. The fact is, most of these assaults on Black communities were the result of racial hatred and resentment against Black progress. Such incidents were part of a larger effort to 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.
Some researchers believe Rosewood’s success as a community of industrious, entrepreneurial-minded Blacks made it a target of racial violence.
Rosewood family history puts some of the first Black settlers in the area at around 1824. Because Florida was not admitted into the union as the 27th U.S. state until 1845, historians use 1845 as the year Rosewood was founded.
Although Florida was a slave state, the earliest Black families to inhabit the region of Rosewood were free. The fact that there were free Blacks living in Florida before the end of slavery was unusual in the deep south. When Spain ceded control of Florida to the United States in 1821, many free Blacks Floridians fled to The Bahamas and Cuba to avoid being under U.S. control.
The presence of African Americans in Rosewood, beginning in the first couple of decades of the 1800’s, was a testament to the determination of these families to actualize the futures they envisioned for themselves in spite of their circumstances.
Blacks initially gravitated to the area in and around Rosewood in search of opportunities for work.
“The lumber industry, the turpentine industry, the logging work industry, and this was what African Americans were used to doing,” DuPree said.
However, African Americans in Rosewood had strong values and plenty of skills.
“They came in with money,” said DuPree. “…These were educated people for that day. They were well educated. They had science backgrounds, history backgrounds. So they came with some knowledge as to how to proceed and get their families operating in a new community,” she said.
Blacks in Rosewood 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.
The demise of Rosewood was a symptom of larger trends happening across the country. Most of these trends centered around rolling back Black progress following slavery and taking asserting dominance over African Americans.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, was released. Although it is considered a landmark film that popularized many filmmaking techniques still used today, it was explicitly racist and is regarded as one of the most offensive films ever made. The original title was actually, The Clansman, which the film was known as for the first month of its release. The film portrays a subjective, revisionist depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The film was seen by millions of people and is credited with sparking the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. It also caused riots in several cities and was banned in others.
In fact, so-called race riots (which often, more accurately resembled one-sided massacres) had broken out across the country. The year of 1919, was dubbed the Red Summer because there were more than two dozen racially-motivated riots, massacres and acts of violence that targeted Black communities, including many in the South.
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 and to find higher paying work. They also left to join communities where they could vote and live without the constant fear of retaliation.
In the years leading up to the Rosewood Massacre, there had been an increasing number of Black lynchings in Florida and other areas of the South.
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 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.”
Scholars such as historian David R. Colburn believe much of the racial violence experienced by Blacks came from white backlash. He believes the resentment stems from the Great Migration and the perceived disruption many whites believe it imposed on their ways of life.
Despite the fascade of national unity behind the war effort beginning in 1917, many American regions with higher numbers of minorities and immigrants experienced anything but widespread unity. In a scholarly article authored by Colburn and published in the Florida Historical Quarterly titled, “Rosewood and America in the Early Twentieth Century,” 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.”
There was also resentment against African Americans, particularly Black men, who had returned home after WWI expecting better treatment after having served their country. This also contributed to many of the tensions behind race riots and massacres throughout the country.
Political and economic disenfranchisement was also 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.
When the story of Rosewood is told today, the question is often asked how such a thing could be allowed to happen. Indeed, the magnitude of horror, destruction and unhinged madness is astonishing, even in the context of of the 1920’s South.
However when one considers the historical backdrop, it becomes see how such an atrocity could occur.
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 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.