How History Forgot the Rosewood Killings

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Florida, African American history, Rosewood Massacre

In January 1923, Rosewood was wiped off the map by a week of mob violence, then erased from history by people who didn’t want to talk about what had happened to the town’s primarily Black residents.

But in 1982, a white newspaper reporter named Gary Moore started asking questions in nearby Cedar Key. At last, everything that had been hidden began to come out.

“I called my editor and told her that I had a story about a whole community vanishing,” Moore says. “She was shocked.”

Multiple versions of what happened exist, including a recounting by director John Singleton in a 1997 movie starring Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames and Jon Voight. This account reflects what Moore has found in 40 years of tracing documents and interviewing survivors and their descendants.

In the early 1900s, Rosewood was a small town in a rural part of Florida that’s full of pines and oaks rather than palm trees. The name came from its abundant red cedars, which were cut down to make pencils. In 1920, the Levy County community held an estimated 26 households. According to census records, 4 belonged to white residents, while 22 belonged to Black families. The town’s total population was around 100.

The people of Rosewood farmed or worked at the sawmill in the town of Sumner, some three miles away, or at a turpentine camp in Wylly. At both the mill and the camp, a makeshift dance hall called a “jook joint” offered booze and rough-hewn entertainment. Rosewood itself held a one-room schoolhouse and two small general stores, with a railroad line running through the town.

At the time of the massacre, racial violence was on the rise in both Florida and the broader nation. A few years earlier, Black veterans returning from World War I and expecting better treatment had instead encountered a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. So much bloodshed occurred across the country in the summer of 1919 that it became known as the Red Summer. In 1920, Election Day in Ocoee, a rural town about 100 miles southeast of Rosewood, turned into a massacre after a Black man tried to vote. A year later saw the eruption of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which killed as many as 300 people in the prosperous Black community of Greenwood, Oklahoma.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Black veterans “assumed that participating in a war to help make the world safe for democracy would in turn help them achieve their own level of democracy. [But as they] realized that President [Woodrow] Wilson’s notion of ‘democracy’ did not extend to them, they evolved a collective will to fight back against mob violence rather than turn the other cheek.”

The violence that destroyed Rosewood began on Monday, January 1, 1923, when Fannie Taylor, a married white woman from Sumner, claimed a Black man had attacked her before fleeing into the swamps. Later investigations suggested Taylor was delusional, or that she’d been assaulted by a white lover and made up the story to hide the affair from her husband. But the town’s initial reaction was to believe the false accusation and take swift action.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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