Remembering Rosewood

Remembering Rosewood

David Aronson

A desolate stretch of asphalt enlivened by the occasional glint of a crushed beer can or the bloodied carcass of an armadillo, Florida’s Route 24 runs southwest from Gainesville, the university town, to Cedar Key, a straggling fishing port half-heartedly gentrifying itself for the tourist trade. A railroad embankment parallels the road through a forest of long-leaf pine, and though the iron tracks were stripped back in the 1950s, there are still intermittent signs of the settlements the Seaboard Air Line Railroad once served. About forty miles out of Gainesville, on land now seemingly uninhabited, is a green town marker labeled “Rosewood.” Near the town marker, pumps rust on their handles in front of a defunct gas station. A fire tower rises from a clearing in the forest’s dense undergrowth, where banana spiders weave gothic, five-foot cobwebs and razor-edged cabbage palmetto and prickly pear thrive. From the tower’s summit, 200 steep steps up a gray, peeling stairwell, the tops of pine trees stretch to the horizon like blades of grass, swaying in the wind. The ocean is out of sight, beyond rolling hills, but above the pine tops, red-winged hawks and American kestrels catch drafts coming off the Gulf and soar for long minutes, then furl themselves into tight bullet shapes and dive for prey. Every now and then, a beat-up Chevy S-10 with a gun rack on the back window eases from a laterite side-road, kicks up a puff of red dust, and recedes down the highway into the subtropical shimmer.

These dirt roads lead to a scattering of isolated trailers and plank shacks whose yards tend to be occupied by old cars, rusty machinery, and large, chained dogs. It’s not clear how the people living here support themselves. The lumber, turpentine and brush companies that once thrived in this region and dotted it with hamlets are gone–lost to mysterious fires in the twenties, or abandoned decades ago and reclaimed by the woods. But hunting is clearly the primary avocation. On several houses, deer racks line the eaves, mounted on bent nails. Rottweilers in chain-link pens bark furiously at strangers, but cower as they approach. Generally, the houses are derelict. Porches sag. Tarpaper roofs droop. Windows are patched with cardboard. To an outsider, the place can seem sinister, even hostile. A woman with thin blond hair and a baby balanced on her hip, wearing a pink T-shirt that says “A woman’s place is in the mall,” shrugs silently when asked for directions to a neighbor’s house.

Yet in this place, say some historians, there was once a thriving black township, boasting three churches, a school, a railroad station, a Masonic hall, two general stores, and a touring amateur baseball team named the Rosewood Stars. And unlike other towns in the area, towns like Wylly, Sumner and Gulf Hammock, Rosewood owes its extinction not to the vicissitudes of the Levy County economy, which even today remains mired on Florida’s bottom rung, but to what has been variously described as a “race riot,” a “n…. r hunt,” or, most enigmatically, the “Rosewood affair.”

Rosewood made national news in the mid 1990s, mostly because of the Florida State legislature’s controversial debate over whether to award reparations to the victims and their children. Partly as a result, historians, writers, and documentary makers flocked to the story, attracted less, perhaps, by what details are known than by the penumbra of mystery that surrounds it. Rosewood is a story of romance and violence set in the remote hammocks of north central Florida, and its very absence of ascertainable fact seems to license the imagination. The story reached a kind of modern-day apotheosis with John Singleton’s Hollywood production, a box-office flop amalgamating fact and legend, and the State legislature’s decision to award $2.1 million to the victims. But the story of Rosewood’s destruction and its subsequent imaginative resurrection poses more questions than it answers, questions about the nature of myth and memory, the use of history, and the terms by which this nation has and will acknowledge the insults of its past.

It is said that New Year’s Day, 1923, dawned clear and cold in Sumner, a white lumber town three miles down the road from Rosewood. Most of the men, who did not have the day off, were already at the company mill when a young bride named Fannie Taylor burst from her clapboard house on the edge of town. Sobbing, barely intelligible, she claimed to have been assaulted by a black stranger. As the townsfolk gathered around her, she lapsed in and out of consciousness, seemingly overcome by shock, her face and arms bruised.

Sheriff Robert Elias Walker deputized a few men and brought in hounds from a nearby convict camp to help search for Fannie’s assailant, believed to be a fugitive named Jesse Hunter who had escaped from a nearby chain gang a day earlier. But as word spread of the assault, more and more men joined the posse, and the sheriff realized he was losing control: “This crowd wants blood, and they are going to have blood,” he told one young man, who would recollect the scene before a committee of the State legislature 71 years later.

The dogs led the mob to Rosewood, where a local blacksmith named Sam Carter was strung up on an old, moss-covered oak and threatened with hanging until he confessed to having driven the suspect away in his wagon. But when Carter brought the men to the place where he claimed to have dropped Hunter off, the hounds were unable to pick up the scent. One of the mob then shot Carter point blank in the face. The coroner’s report issued the following day ruled that Carter had been killed by “hands unknown.”

Over the next several days, the mob would grow ever larger as word of the “n…. r hunt” spread through north central Florida and into Georgia. But with prospects of finding Hunter diminishing, the search took on the atmosphere of a carnival–a “real piece of Americana,” as one lynching survivor would recollect. Twenty miles outside of Rosewood, a group of whites drunk on moonshine shot and killed a black man nicknamed Lord God, apparently because they thought he was sassing them when they asked for his name. In Yallertown, where many of Rosewood’s lighter complected blacks lived, a woman named Lexie Gordon was assassinated as she scrambled to escape from her torched house. The most violent confrontation, however, would take place at the Carrier residence.

Sylvester Carrier was one of those men on whom legends like John Henry’s are hung. A crack shot and splendid singer, married to the town beauty, Carrier had a way of squaring off against whites who tried to cut him down and coming out ahead. After the shooting began he had barricaded his clan in his mother’s two-story frame house, armed himself, and sought to wait the violence out. But the mob heard rumors that the Carriers might be harboring the fugitive and decided to take matters in hand. Carrier had it coming to him anyway, some said. Accounts differ about who began the shooting, but after the first round two white men lay dead on the front porch. For several hours, the mob emptied their carbines into the house. Sometime in the early hours of the morning they retreated to Sumner to gather more ammunition. The Carrier children and most of the adults took advantage of the lull to escape into the moonlit woods, few of them wearing much more than their nightclothes.

The next morning, when the whites returned, another gunfight ensued. When it was over, the dead bodies of Sylvester and his mother lay slumped by the piano on the living room floor. Enraged that the rest of the household had escaped, the mob proceeded to set fire to every black-owned residence in the neighborhood. “Masses of twisted steel were all that remained of furniture formerly in the Negro homes, and several charred bodies of dogs, and firearms left in hasty retreat, bore evidence of the mob’s fury,” said the Associated Press, which carried the story nationally. Or as one of the survivors would recall, “A big blaze, just burning down, burning up the whole thing, just burning up my grandma’s house, churches and everything. They burned up everything we had, all our clothes and everything. Yeah, they burned it up.”

One final murder capped the violence. James Carrier, Sylvester’s elderly uncle, was recovering from a stroke and unable to escape. Refusing to divulge the names or hiding places of the others involved in the siege, he was forced to dig his own grave beside that of his sister and nephew, and was shot until “his body was fiddled with bullet holes.” In all, the week-long rampage left eight confirmed dead: two white and six black. By early the following week, the Tampa Tribune could report that all was calm in Levy County. Although the town’s negro population still were in hiding in the woods, “no further trouble was expected.”

Not all whites behaved reprehensibly. Several, in fact, displayed unusual courage. John Wright, a white shopkeeper fondly remembered by the children who became Rosewood’s aging survivors because he often gave them a piece of candy or sugarcane, hid several families in the basement of his home. Two brothers who worked as railroad engineers, John and William Bryce, conducted a train into the Rosewood depot and helped spirit dozens of women and children to safety. The mill superintendent, W. H. Pillsbury, also won respect for enforcing a curfew and seeing to it that his men didn’t participate in the violence.

Reporters revisiting Rosewood in the 1990s spoke breathlessly of Florida’s “buried past,” of its “hidden history” and its “secret shame” as though the story of Rosewood’s destruction were only just emerging. In fact, by the standards of its time, Rosewood was surprisingly well reported. The New York Times ran a front page story on it on January 4, 1923, and it dominated Florida’s newspapers for a week. This was the era of “Judge Lynch,” and racial violence was a staple of the news. The day before Rosewood erupted, the Gainesville Sun ran a front page story on the number of lynchings in 1922–only 57, seven less, it noted approvingly, than the number for the year 1921. (A few days later, however, the Sun would conclude its editorial on the assault of an “unprotected white girl” by a “brutish negro” stating: “We feel too indignant just now to write with calm judgment and we shall wait a little while. One thing, however, we shall say now–in whatever state it may be, law or no law, courts or no courts, as long as criminal assaults on innocent women continue, lynch law will prevail, and blood will be shed.”)

African American newspapers also reported extensively on the rampage. But they had a rather different take on it from the Gainesville Sun. Under a banner headline proclaiming “Florida Race War,” The Baltimore Afro-American cited “Numerous Instances of Heroism as Men Defend Homes Against Savages.” It described the siege on the Carriers’ residence as a blow for black freedom everywhere: “Within their improvised fort the little colored group put up a defense that will bear comparison with many of the bravest feats of the colored soldiers on Flanders fields.” The Chicago Defender went one step further, claimlng an ex-soldier (and Chicago native) named Ted Cole as the hero of the hour. Cole, supposedly a World War I veteran who had seen service in France “on the lines and behind the lines,” was said to have “led and inspired his brothers in blood against the assaults of the murderous mob.” No other account mentions Cole or anyone like him.

What strikes a present-day reader of these microfiche newspapers is not, however, the differences in perception between whites and blacks, as eerily as these tend to echo contemporary themes. It is the extent to which white on black violence–a theme largely absent from present consciousness–dominated the news. Implicit in the 1990s resurrection of Rosewood is the notion that it was a unique catastrophe hushed up because of the shame and stigma attached to its memory–“like incest in the family,” as one journalist would write. In truth, Rosewood was left untouched for 60 years because it was utterly unremarkable. Not just lynchings, those baroque, Christic rituals of the South, but “white capping” and “driving out” and plain mob terror were once a routine part of American life. Twenty-seven race riots occurred in 1919 alone. A riot in Arkansas left up to 200 blacks dead. All 79 murder indictments in that case were issued against blacks. In Georgia, a World War I veteran was beaten to death for wearing his uniform in public. The mob ignored the man’s protests that he had no other clothes. After a riot in Knoxville, Tenn., left six blacks dead, U.S. troops shot up an African American neighborhood on rumors (later proven false) that blacks had killed two white men. Nor were such events unknown to Florida. In November 1920, several blacks were killed and their homes destroyed in Ocoee, west of Orlando, when two local black men tried to vote. And less than a month before Rosewood, three black men were killed and several businesses and homes destroyed in Perry, also in north central Florida, after a white school teacher was murdered. It was only after forgetfulness permitted Rosewood to seem exceptional that it could it be “discovered,” and it was only the fiction of its singular terribleness that enabled it to generate such interest–from the legal, journalistic, and political communities, as well as from Hollywood.

COPYRIGHT 1999 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group