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How a Florida race massacre in 1923 was almost erased from history

A rural Black community was destroyed by a racist white mob a century ago. Now, historians and descendants are making sure the story of the Rosewood massacre is never forgotten.

A black-and-white photo of a small house that is on fire.
A Black family’s home in flames in January 1923 amid race riots following allegations that a Black man had attacked a white woman. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

For years, longtime Florida resident Arnett Doctor noticed that his mother routinely went into a deep depression around Christmastime. It wasn’t until weeks later that her yearly depression would subside, and he never understood why. Then one Christmas, when he was 19, Doctor’s mother finally told him about the week of racial violence that she and dozens of other Black people endured in January 1923, when a white mob terrorized and destroyed their rural community in Rosewood, Fla.

Now, 100 years later, historians and descendants of those families, who once buried the ordeal in their memory, are making sure the story of the Rosewood massacre is never forgotten.

“It’s really important that we remember these events because they’ve been hidden for too long,” Maxine Jones, a historian with a focus on African American history and a professor at Florida State University, told Yahoo News. “In order to understand the future and then move forward, we have to understand the past.”

A black-and-white photo showing the ruins of the two-story shanty.
The ruins of the two-story shanty near Rosewood, Fla., where 20 Black residents barricaded themselves and fought off a mob of white people. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

The Rosewood massacre is eerily similar to a lot of other tragic incidents of racial violence in American history. In this instance, violence broke out in the town of about 150 mostly Black, land-owning residents on Jan. 1, 1923, after a white woman accused a Black man of assaulting her. News of the allegation spread fast as tensions quickly boiled over. An angry mob of white residents from nearby Sumner, Fla., began hunting for Jesse Hunter, a Black man accused of the assault with no evidence, for a week. Over that time, residents’ homes and businesses were burned down and churches were destroyed. In all, at least six Black people and two white people were killed; no one was arrested following the ordeal. Residents who were able to escape fled to nearby Gainesville, while others, historians say, disappeared altogether. For decades, the incident was never talked about by Rosewood victims out of fear of retribution.

“People sometimes don’t realize the power of fear,” Jones said. “Knowing the reach of powerful white people, they knew they couldn’t talk about it openly. And, in fact, some of the families never even talked about it amongst themselves.

“Fear is very powerful, and to watch everything that you own burn or be stolen and no one being held accountable for that — it was a nightmare over and over again.”

But it didn’t stay buried forever.

A crowd of white citizens of Sumner, Fla., near a site where six Black residents of Rosewood, Fla., were killed and buried.
A crowd of white citizens of Sumner, Fla., near a site where six Black residents of Rosewood, Fla., were killed and buried. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Jones in 1993 became the lead researcher on a study about the massacre, commissioned by the Florida Legislature. Previously, she said, little was known about the tragic events because former Rosewood residents had been mum about the ordeal. But Doctor, whose own life was transformed by the event he wasn’t even alive for, made it his personal mission to expose it. He wanted the families, including his own, to receive something back for what was stripped from them.

“I called him the Moses of the family,” his cousin Gregory Doctor told the Tampa Bay Times. “God implanted in him the spirit to lead the family and fight for reparations.”

Arnett Doctor traveled across the state of Florida to talk to descendants of Rosewood following his mother’s death; she had forbidden him to talk about it while she was alive. He connected with a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times in 1982 to elevate the story, and he eventually enlisted a high-powered law firm, Holland & Knight, to help with the fight. Twelve years later, the Florida Legislature passed a claims bill awarding the descendants $2.1 million for their losses. The bill noted that both local and federal officials “had sufficient time and opportunity to act to prevent the tragedy” but “failed to act to prevent the tragedy.”

A view of a two-story white house from the road.
A view in 2020 of the Wright House, where John Wright helped Black residents of Rosewood flee the massacre. (Zack Wittman for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

“The money was important, but I think to the survivors — the nine people who ended up getting the $250,000 — I think even more important was they got to tell their story,” Jones said. “They finally had a voice.”

The bill stopped short of any mention of reparations, which Jones said was key in its passage.

“The word ‘reparations’ is loaded,” she said. “And there was a lot of resistance from Florida legislators to opening this gate, and they tried to make sure when they agreed to compensate these families that there were no loopholes — that other people couldn’t come out of the woodwork and make any more claims against the state.”

In addition to the lump sum, a scholarship fund was created for descendants who attend state colleges. To date, about 300 students have received the Rosewood scholarship since its inception in 1994, according to the Washington Post.

A young woman wearing a black-and-white striped shirt looks to the side.
Morgan Carter, a Rosewood scholarship recipient who attends Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2019. (Zack Wittman for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Marking a dramatic shift from decades past of silence, a slew of events this weekend in Gainesville, Fla., will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre. Speakers will include prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump and the Rev. Jamal Bryant.

For Jones, the Rosewood massacre should serve as a sobering reminder of why talking about and documenting history, both good and bad, is more important than ever.

“I think these incidents of racial violence, the lynchings explain race relations in this country,” she said. “It explains the tension, the fear, the distrust that still exists between Black and white people in this country.

“We need to talk about this and stop hiding it. It doesn’t mean we don’t talk about the good, but when you study the past, it just gives you an understanding of a lot that connects the past to the present.”

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Cover thumbnail photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images