Descendants mark racial violence that razed Florida town of Rosewood 100 years ago
The violence in Rosewood mirrored some of America's infamy of racial violence in the years after World War I. In Florida, the Black communities in Ocoee and Rosewood were stained by historic violence in 1920 and 1923, respectively.
ROSEWOOD, Fla. – Lizzie Robinson Jenkins’s living room walls are covered in neat rows and columns of early 1900s history. Tables are littered with artifacts from her aunt including frayed handkerchiefs and a metal coin purse — family heirlooms almost lost to hate.
The 84-year-old’s expression changed as she remembered details passed down by her mother about one of Florida’s darkest moments from 100 years ago. It was a story about Rosewood, a town in Levy County in north-central Florida. And how that same town, once known as a haven for Black Americans, was decimated by racial violence throughout the first week of January 1923.
Like many people, Jenkins had never heard of a town called Rosewood, just a half hour from her home in Archer, near Gainesville. But when she was five years old, her mother entrusted her with a lifelong mission: Keep Rosewood alive.
“Mom said you must research, authenticate, tell the truth,” said Jenkins, the founder and president of the Real Rosewood Foundation Inc. – a small non-profit founded to preserve public awareness of those terrible days. “Never attack anybody for what happened in Rosewood because the people living today did not create Rosewood.”
The violence in Rosewood mirrored some of America's infamy of racial violence – including lynchings and mob attacks – in the years after World War I that included Chicago, Tulsa, Omaha and East St. Louis. In Florida, the Black communities in Ocoee and Rosewood were stained by historic violence in 1920 and 1923, respectively.
This week, during the centennial anniversary of the violence, descendants and impacted communities will commemorate the Rosewood Massacre and honor the lives lost, acknowledge trauma shared and celebrate the promise of a better future during a time of re-emerging racial tensions and reckoning.
Eight families are direct descendants and remain to tell the story of the Rosewood Massacre: the Bradleys, the Carriers, the Colemans, the Edwardses, the Evanses, the Goinses, the Halls and the Robinsons. Jenkins tells the story of her aunt Mahulda Gussie Brown Carrier, the local Rosewood school teacher who was raped for telling the truth.
Carrier, Jenkins’ aunt, lived with her husband in the small rural community of predominantly Black families during the Reconstruction era. It was about 9 miles northeast of Cedar Key and 45 miles west of Gainesville. It was surrounded by green forests with several churches, a train station, a post office, a Black masonic hall and a Black school – until the town was burned by a white mob.
Three miles west of Rosewood was Sumner, where Frances “Fannie” Taylor, a 22-year-old white married woman lived. On New Year’s Day in 1923, she accused a Black man of assaulting her in her home, according to a 1993 state report produced by Florida university professors.
Researchers said some Black residents at the time and their descendants believe Taylor’s attacker was her white boyfriend and that Taylor fabricated the tale to her husband to protect her reputation.
Enraged by the report of a Black man assaulting a white woman, Sumner residents took up arms and began searching for the culprit.
The state report indicated news spread quickly of the attack, well beyond Sumner, likely reaching a Ku Klux Klan parade that took place in Gainesville on Dec. 31. Though the report doesn’t confirm their presence in Rosewood, Jenkins said her aunt Carrier was kidnapped by hundreds of klansmen.
The mob interrogated Carrier about her husband's whereabouts the day Taylor was assaulted. Carrier quickly told them her husband was at home.
“They didn't want to hear that,” Jenkins said. “They wanted her to lie.”
Jenkins said her aunt repeated that her husband was at home. Jenkins said the alibi infuriated the klansmen, who raped Carrier.
Carrier, too ashamed about the assault to tell her parents, told only her sister Theresa Brown Robinson — Jenkins’ mother, who in turn made sure to keep her sister’s story alive through her daughter.
Tensions boiled as burnings and death followed residents of Rosewood that week.
A shootout at the Carrier House unfolded in the evening of Jan. 4, lasting through the night until the mob ran out of ammunition. The ceasefire provided a window of opportunity for the Black residents to escape into the surrounding swamps, researchers said.
People were wounded on both sides. And by some accounts, a Black mother and son were found dead inside their home, researchers said.
Before departing Rosewood, Jenkins said, the mob burned the houses and churches until only the local store owner John Wright’s house remained.
Inside Wright’s home, the white man sheltered many of the would-be survivors, Jenkins said.
Along with Levy County Sheriff Bob Walker, local train conductors helped orchestrate an evacuation for some Black residents, free of charge. At the railroad station in Archer, a 2000 plaque honors Carrier for her bravery at Rosewood.
At least seven people, two white people and five Black people, died in the Rosewood violence. Descendants like 48-year-old Ebony Pickett think the number is higher. Some Black residents were so afraid after the massacre that they changed their names, she said, making it difficult to find records of them and determine the true number.
Maxine Jones, a history professor at Florida State University, was the principal investigator for the 1993 state report. While some people physically died, perhaps more than they could confirm, others died a little inside, she said.
For Ebony Pickett, the massacre’s psychological shockwaves prompted mixed emotions: excitement to share the family’s history and legacy but also sadness that Rosewood is no longer their family’s home.
“Yes, it's been 100 years, but there was a lot of life that was snuffed out, prematurely, and for no reason at all,” Ebony Pickett said.
For her 20-year-old daughter, Raghan Pickett, those same psychological shockwaves had a different impact. While Raghan Pickett also felt a whirlwind of emotions about the upcoming centennial, she said her memories of Rosewood are painted more by good times at family reunions.
“I am younger than my grandmother and all the ones that kind of understand more or see the negative effect of the massacre,” Raghan Pickett said. “I am understanding of it as well, but all of my memories have been good memories with my family.”
Unlike Jenkins’ and the Pickett families, some descendants didn’t learn about Rosewood history until they were much older.
Gregory Doctor didn’t learn about the Rosewood Massacre until 1982 – he was 19 at the time. His grandmother, Thelma Evans Hawkins, like many survivors, took a “vow of silence,” but Doctor always knew something was wrong around Christmas time when the parents would gather inside to talk and the children would go outside to play. They returned to teary eyes and signs of consoling.
Now, 58 and medically retired from the U.S. Army, he recognizes similar signs of PTSD found in his grandmother. She had been carrying anger for more than 70 years.
Although the older generation feared speaking about Rosewood, generations like Jenkins and Doctor knew it was time to speak up.
In 1992, the prominent law firm Holland & Knight worked with Arnette Doctor, a Goins’ descendant and Doctor’s cousin, to receive an apology from the state and reparations. Almost 71 years since the massacre, house and senate bills were filed for parties injured.
Florida passed House Bill 591 in 1994, a $2.1 million compensation bill for Rosewood Massacre survivors and their descendants. It was the first time in U.S. history that a state paid compensation for racial violence, said Martha Barnette, a Holland & Knight partner who worked on the case without compensation. The value of the money would be worth about $4.2 million today.
Barnett said the bill was extremely controversial but garnered enough support to show people that the justice system does work. She hopes the case continues to be a roadmap for those who wish to seek justice on important issues.
The money, which was less than the $7 million sought, was divided. Elderly survivors each received $150,000 in compensation, and the state created two funds – one to compensate property lost and a state scholarship for descendants like the Picketts.
Ebony Pickett was a part of the first inaugural scholarship class in 1994 to receive the Rosewood scholarship. She received her Bachelor of Science in Occupational therapy at Florida A&M. Her children continued the alumni legacy at the same college as second-generation scholarship recipients.
There have been more than 350 descendants that have benefited from the scholarship, she said.
Still, even with scholarships, Rosewood remains a forbidden topic for some families.
Jonathan Barry-Blocker, a 38-year-old attorney and UF law professor, spent late elementary and middle school spring breaks fishing off piers with his grandfather, Rev. Ernest Blocker in Sarasota. He didn’t know Blocker was a survivor of the Rosewood Massacre until he was 13.
“Your grandfather will not talk about it with you – so don't ask.” Barry-Blocker remembers his father telling him. “So, I never asked.”
It wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter protests that he started digging deep and asking questions about his past. He plans to participate in the Remembering Rosewood Foundation’s centennial events hosted at the University of Florida starting Jan. 8, as well as talk to older and younger generations about what it can look like to repair harm for major racial trauma.
Barry-Blocker believes American politics is at an inflection point. The U.S. had ones during the Civil Rights movement, the Reconstruction era and now, he said, the Black Lives Matter movement to make society more inclusive.
“It's important that we discuss past traumas, past transgressions, so that we understand what we shouldn't be repeating,” Barry-Blocker said. “But also, we know what the signs are when those things might happen again. When leaders start structuring laws in a way to oppress people or to deny them their full humanity or their full scope of rights.”
Jenkins said she also wants to send a positive message to the next generation to take Rosewood’s history and U.S. history forward.
Since Rosewood has effectively disappeared from maps, Jenkins wants the town of Archer to be the capital of healing. With the Real Rosewood Foundation, Inc. helping to fundraise, she plans to move John Wright’s house from Cedar Key to Archer and make it a museum.
“I hope Rosewood is the catalyst,” Jenkins said. “I’m going to make sure it’s the big part of changing the narrative or changing the attitudes of hate and disrespect.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reache at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to support our students here.
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