By Moe White –
The two-year anniversary of the attempted coup against our government has taken up most of the news recently, along with the chaos in the House of Representatives as the new Republican majority attempted, and finally succeeded, at electing Kevin McCarthy as Speaker.
But January 2023 also marks the 100th anniversary of the destruction of the Black town of Rosewood, Florida, by racist vigilantes backed up by local town and county law enforcement officers.
On January 1, 1923, in a familiar scenario, Fannie Taylor, a married White woman from the neighboring town of Sumner, Florida, claimed a Black man had assaulted her and fled into the swamps. The speculation is that she was trying to hide from her husband an affair with, and assault by, a fellow White man. As her story spread, White vigilantes from neighboring towns began to infiltrate Rosewood, seeking the supposed perpetrator by using a hunting dog to track a human scent from near her home, into Rosewood, through a house there, and out again into the wilderness.
For the next several days, the sheriff, his deputies, and White vigilantes wrought havoc on the town, as Black residents hid in the local mill, in the woods, and in the home of John M. Wright and a few other courageous White families willing to shelter their neighbors. By January 7, the town was burned to the ground and most of the residents had fled to Chicago, New York, and other havens in the North, never to return.
Seeking lost history
In 1982 a reporter, Gary Moore, had begun delving into the hidden history; that year he tracked down some survivors and wrote up the story for the St. Petersburg Times Sunday magazine. “Rosewood stands as a symbol of the countless secret deaths and tortures that took place in an era that has slipped from view,” he wrote.
Moore then contacted producers at CBS, and following more research and finding more survivors, the news program 60 Minutes ran a segment on Rosewood in 1983. Nearly 15 years later, the 1997 film Rosewood, starring Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames and Jon Voight, told the story of the massacre to an even larger audience.
Legal ramifications—70 years later
In 1992, after the hidden history had been unearthed and proven by reporter Gary Moore, a few survivors filed a legal claim against the state. They based their case on the failure of the governor and other state and local officials to protect Rosewood residents’ lives and property.
When Moore, hired by the legislature to report on the episode, presented his full documentation, the legislature, citing the need for “equity, justice, fairness and healing,” approved payments of up to $150,000 to each of the nine people who could prove they had lived in Rosewood in 1923. The state also set up a scholarship for survivors’ descendants. This is one of the few, and earliest, examples of reparations being made to individuals or a community for government misdeeds in the past.
Commemorated at last
It was not until 2004 that the state of Florida erected a plaque (https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=17707) commemorating the destruction of the community and the deaths of at least six Black residents and two White men. Those two—a sheriff’s deputy and a local lumberman—had tried to invade the home of Sarah Carrier, a Black woman who did laundry for White families. To protect her and his cousin, her grown son Sylvester shot them as they tried to come through the doorway; he was later tracked down and killed.
Yet, like the Wilmington Massacre and Coup of 1898 and the massacre and destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street in 1922, the story of Rosewood is rarely remembered and even more rarely taught in school history classes. But it, like the other racist, vigilante attacks on the Black community throughout American history, is an indelible part of our past, present, and future.