Remembering Florida's Tragic Massacre Our History Books Don’t Talk About

Shenba

That time when one woman wiped out an entire Black neighborhood.

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A Burning House in Rosewood, FloridaWikimedia commons

Rosewood was a small, quaint, sunny town in Florida. Yes, you read that right — ‘was.’ What happened there was one of the most horrific crimes to be committed in the US.

Rosewood was a quaint town in Florida, established in the 1800s. Both white and black families moved there to make a living. The township was famous for its red cedar trees, and people saw them as a lucrative source of income.

Soon, the lumber trade improved the town’s economy, and people were fortunate. They had schools, churches, post offices, etc. Even when society was segregated, it was flourishing.

Yet, as history teaches us, good things don’t last.

By the 1890s, the town’s economy was failing. The locals had chopped down most of the cedar trees, and trade was low. So, people started searching for other opportunities.

Most people from the White community of Rosewood moved to nearby towns. Sumner, a township that’s just a couple of miles from Rosewood, had a sawmill. So, many migrated there.

Soon, the once White-majority region turned into a Black community. There were about 650 people (~350 blacks and ~300 whites) in that neighborhood.

The people of that region found innovative ways to maintain economic stability. Despite Florida’s law that required the Black and the White to have separate community centers, churches, schools, etc., everyone worked hard together. It was one large community where people knew and helped each other.

Things seemed normal, in both Rosewood and Sumner, until the 1st of January 1923.

The beginning of the end

In Sumner lived a young White couple — James and Fannie Taylor. Mr. Taylor worked at the Sumner sawmill. On New Year’s Day, 1923, James was off to work, and his wife stayed home.

After a while, the neighbors heard noises from the Taylor House. When they went to check on her, they saw Mrs. Taylor’s face badly bruised. They knew someone had attacked her.

When people asked what happened, Mrs. Taylor claimed that a black man assaulted her. She said she didn’t know who it was, but it was a black person.

While this account may have been valid, it sounded suspicious. Let me remind you that Rosewood and Sumner were small towns where everyone knew everyone. So, Mrs. Taylor’s statement that she didn’t recognize the attacker sounded dubious. However, it was also the era where a white woman’s claim was always put above a Black person’s reasoning.

And that precisely was what happened.

People were talking, and the news of the attack spread like wildfire.

However, one person found the story odd. It was Sarah Carrier, Taylor’s household help.

Carrier and her granddaughter were working at the Taylor house on the day of the attack. She claimed she didn’t see any Black man in the residence that day. Carrier, however, saw a White man leave the house. In fact, Carrier maintained she had seen the man multiple times in the neighborhood.

Yet, whose story do you think stuck?

Of course, Mrs. Taylor’s.

Jesse Hunter

In these conversations about Mrs. Taylor’s attack, a name comes up — Jesse Hunter.

Now Hunter was a Black convict who had escaped from prison. So, the group immediately believed that he was the perpetrator.

Some prominent figures of that region, including the county sheriff, Robert Walker, agreed to form a posse. Walker pulled in random White men and made them his deputies. Back then, they didn’t have formal processes.

The newly formed posse began their hunt.

The hunt begins

The posse borrowed some bloodhounds from the local prison to find Hunter. They also had a random tip that Hunter was hiding in a Black blacksmith, Sam Carter’s house.

Since it was a small town, the posse knew who Carter was and where he lived. So, they barged into Carter’s house and demanded answers.

But Carter knew nothing. While he tried explaining this to the posse, they paid no heed to him. They were beyond convinced that Carter was protecting Hunter.

To gain the “truth,” the posse tortured Sam by hanging him by a tree. And when they couldn’t get information from him, the angry vigilantes shot him dead.

And this was the beginning of the horrific crime.

The gory massacre

News spread that the posse was fighting for “justice.” It gained more traction, and by morning, it turned into an angry mob. In fact, it no longer seemed like a hunt for the perpetrator; it was more like a communal riot.

At this point, the Sheriff tried to control the situation. But, unfortunately, it grew beyond his power. The mob took matters into their own hands and started attacking people.

Soon, the Black people in Rosewood were terrified. They got together in large groups to protect each other. The angry mob got to know this and believed that Hunter was hiding in one of these groups, specifically in Sarah Carrier’s house, the maid who worked for the Taylors.

Carrier’s son Sylvester also lived in the same house. Now, Sylvester was involved in some fights with the White community. He stood up for himself on multiple occasions, and this caused some strife.

The Carriers also had another problem. They hid several black children in their house, protecting them from the mob. Their residence was close to a swamp, which proved to be a great hiding spot. So, besides saving their lives, they also had tens of children’s lives to save.

On January 4, 1923, the White mob headed to the Carrier home. Upon reaching the house, they kept calling the Carriers out, but they got no response. They felt insulted and infuriated by this.

So, two men from the mob — Henry Andrews and Poly Wilkerson — broke open the front door. This scared the Carriers, and they started shooting at the men as a defense. They ended up killing both the Andrews and Wilkerson.

The mob was furious now, and they, too, started shooting. Both Sarah and Sylvester Carrier were killed in the crossfire, and several more were injured. However, the children who hid in the cold swamp escaped, and they lived to retell this story.

At that point, the mob was too angry to see reason. Killing the Carriers wasn’t enough, and they wanted revenge at all costs. So, they decided to set all the black homes in Rosewood on fire.

The terrified Black community ran for their lives. What started as a fight for justice was no longer about it.

The ray of hope

In Rosewood lived a white man named John Wright. Since he was white, the mob did nothing to his family or his property. He was one of the safest persons in Rosewood.

However, Wright was part of the Rosewood community, and he sympathized with the Black people. He wanted to help them. Wright hid as many people as he could in his house and helped them escape.

On January 5, 1923, over 200 angry White men, including members of the infamous White supremacist group Ku Klux Klan, marched into Rosewood and destroyed whatever was left. While the young ran towards the swamp for their lives, the mob struck the older people. While records show that eight people died in the massacre, no one knows the actual number.

Help!

On January 6, 1923, the people of Rosewood finally got some help.

John and William Bryce were train conductors on a train that passed through Rosewood. So, the Bryce brothers helped women and children who hid in the swamp and the Wright house escape Rosewood.

Those who escaped from Rosewood got off at different stations to start their lives from scratch. They lost everything they had — identity, livelihood, family, property, community, everything. In addition, the trauma of what happened at Rosewood scarred their lives, and these people lived in constant fear of being caught.

The aftermath of the incident

In February 1923, the Sheriff brought this incident to the grand jury.

In the 1920s, the jury wasn’t chosen based on some criteria. They were just a group of random citizens. The prosecution presented the case to them; the citizens may ask questions and come to conclusions.

But since it was the 1920s, Black people weren’t allowed to vote. So, only White people were allowed to be there on the jury. And they believed it was fair to destroy Rosewood in pursuit of justice. So, no charges were pressed against the rioters.

Only a few knew about this gory incident because all records of this massacre were lost, and no one tried to recover them. The only people who knew about it were the descendants of those who survived. And they were too traumatized to speak.

The gory massacre was buried.

Justice

Sixty years later, in 1982, a journalist named Gary Moore, from St. Petersburg Times, drove around that region in search of a scoop.

While going around, he casually commented to a local that the region was gloomy and lifeless. He also wondered how a Black majority region turned White majority in just a few years. The local then claimed, “I know what you’re digging for. You’re trying to get me to talk about that massacre.”

Moore was hooked.

While several survivors and residents of that region had already passed away, many didn’t want to talk about it. They were too traumatized to relive the incidents. However, Moore was determined to find out about it. He got hold of one of the survivor’s descendants, investigated the incident, and brought it to daylight.

The report

Initially, many found the story dubious. Many believed that if such an incident had indeed happened, then our history books would’ve noted it.

So, in 1993, The Florida House of Representatives commissioned a committee to look into this incident. It took them a year to find information about the massacre, and they presented a 100-page document.

However, this document was widely criticized for lack of clarity and truth. Moore also voiced out his concerns about the report. The committee then retracted many controversial parts and submitted a revised version later.

Rosewood v. The State of Florida

Soon, the story received a lot of attention, and the survivors started opening up. Some went to Rosewood to see the place they grew up. Some spoke about the incident publically. And some chose not to come forward.

After the story garnered a lot of attention, people wanted to bring justice to the survivors. Some even brought up a plan for compensating Rosewood victims up. This idea, however, received a mixed reception.

While some believed that the Rosewood survivors must receive compensation, others thought that singling out Rosewood was wrong. They also argued that asking people who weren’t involved in the Rosewood massacre to pay for the mishaps is unfair.

So, in 1994, a lawsuit was filed. Several survivors — Minnie Lee Langley, Arnett Goins, Wilson Hall, and Willie Evans — testified. Their testimonies mesmerized yet horrified the packed courtroom.

Upon assessing their testimonies and the other pieces of evidence presented, Special Master, Richard Hixon, stated it was the state’s moral obligation to make reparations. He claimed,

I truly don’t think they cared about compensation. I think they simply wanted the truth to be known about what happened to them … whether they got fifty cents or a hundred and fifty million dollars. It didn’t matter.

This lawsuit led to the Rosewood Compensation Bill, where a $2.1 million package was allocated for the survivors and their descendants. Eventually, it came down to $150,000 per victim, and nine survivors received it.

However, this compensation led to family feuds. And when family members distributed the money among themselves, it came down to about $100 each. So, the state decided to set up a scholarship fund for Rosewood descendants.

In 2004, Florida declared Rosewood as a national heritage landmark. It also erected a marker on State24 with the names of the victims. The Rosewood Heritage Foundation and Real Rosewood Foundation were also formed to educate people on the historical incident and its consequences.

Lastly

What’s worse than being scarred and humiliated, yet you can’t do anything about it?

What started as a hunt for justice turned into a racial attack. Had someone taken a moment to verify Mrs. Taylor’s claims, we could’ve avoided the whole incident.

While people argue such stories occur only in the previous era, do you really think it’s different today? Please remember the recent violent stories before answering this question.

You may be the sweetest person on Earth, but if you’re not culturally inclusive, it makes no difference. Such tragic stories show us how seemingly pleasant people turn violent when race comes into play. Most people from the mob involved in the Rosewood massacre knew those black men. Yet, they didn’t have an iota of sympathy or reasoning.

Besides, think about it. In today’s world, how often do you encounter people who think they treat all humans equally because they don’t attack minorities? Well, I personally know at least three. While they may not physically harm someone, their insensitive actions and comments still affect people.

It’s said for a reason — “The tongue is sharper than a sword.” So, please be mindful of your actions and comments because your “light-hearted” comments can affect the other person in unexpected ways.

If you have nothing nice to say, choose to stay silent.

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