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THOMPSON: How racism destroyed a Florida community

April 08, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Between our horse farm in Florida and picturesque Cedar Key there is a town…or at least a place where there was once a town. Unlike Cedar Key - nine miles due west - most folks today don’t talk too much about Rosewood...perhaps over guilt or shame or ignorance or the discomfort of how racism hurts everyone.

All that remains of what was a thriving community of more than 200 people…is one lone two-story house. An official green-and-white sign on State Road 24 lets you know that the area is Rosewood…and another larger black and white sign on the opposite side of the road near that only surviving house…tells how Rosewood ended suddenly in 1923.

The town was founded in 1845 by black and white settlers, but after the Civil War the so-called Black Codes - laws past by Southern states to limit freedoms of former slaves and establish cheap labor - and later Jim Crow laws brought and perpetuated segregation. When virtually all of the cedar trees played out and the two pencil manufactures left the area…so did most white people. By the 1900s only three white people lived in Rosewood…one - John Wright - owned a general store there…and that one house that stands today.

The lone surviving house from the Rosewood massacre in 1923.
The lone surviving house from the Rosewood massacre in 1923.

Rosewood prospered in the early 1900s…most houses were painted…not always a given in the rural South even in white communities. There were neat lawns and rose gardens…a few homes had pianos…and while horses were the most common transportation, there were Ford Model Ts in the town.

Also, Rosewood was a whistle stop for mail, passengers and freight on the first cross-state Seaboard Air Line Railroad between Jacksonville and Cedar Key. A clarifying note…the railroad had no planes…Air Line in this case meant the shortest distance between two points…an abbreviated “as the crow flies” reference.

It was New Year’s Day of 1923 when things started to forever change Rosewood. Fannie Taylor, a 22-year-old white woman who lived in nearby Sumner…an entirely white community…explained to a neighbour that she was beaten…but not raped by a black man. It was discovered months later that she - a married woman - was beaten by her extra-marital lover...a white man. 

But that very day, the neighbour reported the alleged attack by a black man to the local sheriff and before he could act…Taylor’s husband gathered an angry white mob and sought revenge in the closest black community. Whites from surrounding counties - buttressed by a couple hundred KKK members attending a rally in nearby Gainesville - would join their ranks in the coming days…marauding through Rosewood and the surrounding area.

READ MORE: THOMPSON: The 'real' Florida

Also, the mob learned that a black prisoner - Jessie Hunter - escaped from a chain gang the day before in a neighbouring county…so the mob had a target and an excuse. Despite decades of virtually no crime, the black people who lived in Rosewood were treated no better than criminals by the mobs that terrorized their community. Like racists today, they assumed all blacks were alike…and despite being hardworking middle-class and God-fearing folks…they would surely hide the escaped convict.

Communication then certainly wasn’t what it is today…few phones…no social media…not even a daily newspaper nearby. Even so, a series of mobs acting independently swooped down on Rosewood. The first mob reached Aaron Carrier’s home…a nephew of Sarah Carrier, who did Taylor’s laundry…tied him the the bumper of a Ford Model T and dragged him to Sumner…three miles away and then beat him.

Amazingly, he survived, and Levy County Sheriff Robert Elias Walker - to his credit - stopped the mob and personally drove Carrier to Gainesville where he was treated by a doctor and put under protective custody of the sheriff in neighbouring Alachua county.

Another mob - led by the Klansmen - surrounded the home of the town’s blacksmith, Sam Carter. They tortured Carter and when he finally admitted to hiding Hunter - the escaped convict - he told the mob he would take them to Hunter’s hiding place in the nearby woods. It was a stall to prevent further beating…but ultimately it failed. The mob shot Carter and hung his body from a tree…meant as a lesson to Rosewood’s black residents.

An historical marker on the site where until 1923 there was once a vital community.
An historical marker on the site where until 1923 there was once a vital community.

On the fourth night of the siege…the house of Sarah Carrier - the laundress and aunt of Aaron Carrier who was taken to Gainesville for protection - was surrounded and fired upon by the mob. Nearly two dozen Rosewood residents - most of them children - were inside. Sarah Carrier was shot in the head and her son, Sylvester, was shot in the chest…both died. Two white men - members of the mob that rushed the house - were shot on the front porch by Sarah or her son. The children escaped through the back door into the woods when the mob breached the door.

Rumours about the standoff at the Carrier home spread like wildfire…fanned by a false news report the fifth day that said a roaming band of black men were killing white people. That brought another larger mob to Rosewood…they burned the town’s three churches, more than 30 homes and businesses. Some residents were shot as they left the burning structures, according to survivors. Lexie Gordon - a middle-aged woman - was shot in the face as she hid under the porch of her burning home.

Some women and children escaped by train to Gainesville and beyond…though no black men were allowed for fear by the railroad that the train would be attacked by white mobs. Another Carrier family member - James - Sylvester’s brother and the younger son of Sarah…was caught in the nearby swamp. He was forced to dig his own grave…and then murdered.

Some white people in the area - outraged by the mob violence - hid black Rosewood citizens for days…risking violence against themselves. It is difficult to say how many people lost their lives…records were incomplete. An official report said seven were killed…survivors said 26 were killed…and still others said more. One indisputable fact is that Rosewood - a once vibrant community - ceased to exist in 1923…a victim of racist mobs…because young Fannie Taylor lied about her extra-marital affair with a white man.

It took another 71 years for then-Florida Governor Lawton Chiles to sign a compensation bill giving $2.1 million to nine survivors…young children in 1923…about $150,000 each. Also, the bill provided tuition-free education at any of 13 state universities for the surviving Rosewood families and their descendants in perpetuity. Further, it allowed compensation to any former resident who could prove property loss.

Too little, too late? I can’t say…I’ve never been terrorized, shot, had family murdered, been burnt out and chased into a swamp…or lost my hometown. But I think about it every time I drive to and from beautiful Cedar Key.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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