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Rosewood Remembered: Centennial of racist massacre that destroyed a Black Florida town spotlights racial injustice past and present

Nine miles before Florida State Road 24 dead-ends in the Gulf of Mexico, a cast aluminum historical marker stands next to a white two-story home – all that is left of Rosewood, a once-thriving, predominantly Black town terrorized and razed to the ground by a racist mob 100 years ago this month.

But thanks to decades of persistence by descendants of victims of the massacre, the memory of Rosewood burns more brightly today than the fires that ravaged it in January 1923, when white rioters, drawn by the unverified account of a white woman who claimed she had been beaten and assaulted by a Black drifter, set the town aflame in a murderous rampage.

People stand around burned remains of house
Remains of Sarah Carrier’s house in Rosewood, Florida, in a photo first published in Literary Digest magazine on Jan. 20, 1923. At least six people were killed after white rioters set the town ablaze. (Credit: Bettman via Getty Images)

For almost 60 years the massacre, which left at least six murdered while the rest, including dozens of children, escaped in the middle of the night, running through swamps, hiding in the woods and leaping onto train cars, was all but erased from historical memory. No law enforcement agency investigated, and no one was ever charged with crimes. The erasure mirrored that of racial violence across the U.S., where lynchings and mob attacks in Chicago, Tulsa, Omaha, and in small towns and large cities across the country were, and in many cases continue to be, left unremarked and unremembered save by communities of survivors.

In recent decades Rosewood has made itself the exception. In the 1990s, descendants, working with a law firm that signed on to help them pro bono, pushed the Florida Legislature to commission a study on the history of Rosewood, so historians could verify survivors’ accounts. They marshaled a media campaign to raise awareness of the massacre and to overcome the fears of Black lawmakers that the issue was too divisive. They lobbied conservative state lawmakers by focusing not on racial justice but property rights.

The efforts paid off.

In 1994, after years of legal struggles, the Florida Legislature passed a bill awarding $2.1 million in compensation to survivors of the massacre and their descendants. It was a fraction of what descendants had sought but remains to this day the only government reparations ever paid to victims of anti-Black racial violence in the U.S. Four years later, Florida passed a law allowing descendants of Rosewood victims to attend Florida colleges and universities tuition-free. More than 300 have done so to date. In 2004, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush traveled to Rosewood to dedicate the Florida Heritage Landmark historical marker, memorializing those who died and whose lives were forever impacted by the massacre.

Rosewood descendants and hundreds of other people will gather next week at the weeklong Remembering Rosewood Centennial Commemoration – co-sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center – first for a wreath-laying ceremony in what was once the prosperous town and then for a series of events at the University of Florida Fredric G. Levin College of Law in Gainesville, about 50 miles away. Attendees will celebrate their success at confronting white supremacy and reclaiming history. But they will also mourn what was lost when Rosewood was destroyed, decry the limits of what justice descendants have attained, and condemn both the resurgent white nationalism in this country as well as the deepening pushback in Florida and elsewhere by right-wing politicians and policymakers against an honest reckoning with history.

“We are deeply honored to partner with the descendants of Rosewood to bring this painful history to light – and to radically imagine a future where all people are free from the grip of white supremacy,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the SPLC. “This kind of truth-telling is necessary to end the centuries of oppression and anti-Black racism that continue to haunt communities today. It is through this shared learning and reflection that we, as a nation, can begin to heal and ensure equity and justice for all.”

‘Candid telling of history’

The commemoration has been organized by the nonprofit Descendants of Rosewood Foundation and is co-sponsored by – in addition to the SPLC – the University of Florida and Holland & Knight, the law firm that represented the descendants in their legal battle. Other sponsors include Florida State University, Visit Gainesville, Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida, the Miami Center for Racial Justice and Onyx Magazine.

The keynote speaker at the commemoration will be prominent racial justice attorney Ben Crump, who has represented families in the Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Flint, Michigan, civil rights cases. The events also include the opening of the Rosewood Traveling Museum at the university, screenings of both the feature film Rosewood – directed by John Singleton – and a separate documentary, as well as several panel discussions featuring descendants, filmmakers, historians, legal scholars and civil and human rights activists.

In an irony emblematic of how much work remains to ensure equity and justice for all, the commemoration takes place just months after a new law took effect in Florida that aims to restrict schools and workplaces from teaching about the United States’ legacy of racism. Last year, the SPLC filed an amicus brief in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, HB 7. Commonly called the Stop WOKE Act, it is already having a chilling effect on the teaching of history in Florida.

The Florida Board of Education’s specifications for 2022-23 social studies materials have interpreted HB 7 expansively, prohibiting “social justice” and “culturally responsive teaching.” Scholars tracking the implementation of the law warn that in classrooms across the state the teaching of the history of Rosewood; of the 1920 Election Day massacre in the town of Ocoee, near Orlando; and of the lynchings and other racial violence strewn throughout Florida history may be silenced.

Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor and director of the Race and Crime Center for Justice at the Levin College of Law, as well as an SPLC board member, said HB 7 demonstrates “how progress happens. Yes, we achieved reparations for Rosewood, but now here comes the rollback. We’re not in the place we were in 1923, but we are still not where we want to be. It’s an ongoing fight. The times change. The goalposts change, but the fight is still there.”

For the SPLC, the opportunity to amplify the work of Rosewood survivors by joining with partner organizations to co-sponsor the commemorative events is “symbolic of our entire fight for racial justice in the South, especially in places like Florida where the pushback is so intense against a candid telling of history,” SPLC Chief Legal Officer Derwyn Bunton said.

Rosewood is “one of a thousand stories where communities of color or just vulnerable, targeted communities had to endure an insane injustice,” Bunton said. “But the children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren of those families that were forced into that swamp never let it go. They came together with advocates and communities to seek justice. And that is something that increasingly is at the center of what SPLC is doing, partnering with other nonprofits and organizations to bring about change in the South.”

‘He won’t talk about it’

For some who survived the massacre, the trauma was just too painful to share, even with their families. Jonathan Barry-Blocker was 13 years old in 1997 when his father came into his room and sat down on his bed. There was a movie coming out, Barry-Blocker’s father told him. You should know, he said, because people may be calling us. What his dad shared that day for the first time was that Barry-Blocker’s grandfather, the Rev. Ernest Blocker, was a Rosewood survivor.

“He won’t talk about it,” Barry-Blocker recalls his father warning. “So, you can never ask him questions.”

Two people in field amid cemetery markers
James Davidson, left, and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant document Rosewood’s African American cemetery in a 2012 photo. Gonzalez-Tennant, who has studied the 1923 Rosewood massacre for decades, says that “there’s a direct connection in terms of understanding this sort of violence and connecting it to what is happening today.” (Courtesy of Edward Gonzalez-Tennant)

Barry-Blocker, now a visiting professor at the Levin College of Law and a former staff attorney with the SPLC, said what he has been able to uncover about how his family history was shaped by Rosewood is unsatisfying. He knows his grandmother’s family moved from Georgia to Rosewood to work in a Black-owned turpentine business that was one of the economic pillars of the town. He knows from county and U.S. census records that his great-grandparents married and then rented their home, near a post office, on the outskirts of Rosewood. He knows his great-grandfather operated an informal store in the town, which had several churches, a Masonic lodge, a school and tidy, two-story Black-owned homes, many with pianos and other ephemera of middle-class lives.

Lastly, Barry-Blocker knows his family fled everything in a panic, in the middle of the night. Somehow, his great-grandparents were separated. And his great-grandmother and the children – his grandfather among them – ended up on a train to Gainesville.

When he started to understand his family history, “I was so angry,” Barry-Blocker said. “The thoughts in my head were: Was my grandfather one of the children screaming amid the violence? Did they have to jump onto that train? Were they in that swamp? And what could have been? Rosewood was a pretty wealthy Black town for the turn of the century. Could my family have built some homeownership, land holdings? Could they have gone to college sooner? After Rosewood, they had to start all over. They had to start from the bottom in a sense, in a place where they had no footing. … What would have accrued to them until now, but for the attack on Rosewood?”

Despite his anger and his questions, Barry-Blocker said he followed his father’s advice. He never asked his grandfather, who lived to his 90s, about the massacre.

“I’ll never know what made them flee, what they went through. I’m still trying to figure stuff out,” Barry-Blocker said. “That’s the rough part.”

As descendants like Barry-Blocker search for answers on their own, historians, anthropologists and archaeologists are also working to shed light on the history of Rosewood and places like it. Edward Gonzalez-Tennant, an assistant professor of anthropology at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, spent years studying Rosewood, first as a graduate student and then as an assistant professor in Florida. Using computer mapping and 3D modeling techniques, he combed through thousands of property deeds, conducted excavations and went through a broad range of other sources to re-create as closely as possible what Rosewood looked like before it was destroyed. The virtual world he created is publicly available.

“Obviously doing work like this, a lot of people are upset by it. That’s the past, they say. Why open old wounds?” Gonzalez-Tennant said. “But I think there’s a direct connection in terms of understanding this sort of violence and connecting it to what is happening today. It’s like putting the voices of people who were silenced back into the narrative. Then we can see how we are silencing these communities today.”

‘The blood land’

Indications of how much understanding is still needed are rife in and around Rosewood.

On Sept. 6, 2022, prominent Black psychologist Marvin Dunn, who more than a decade ago purchased five acres in the unincorporated area of Levy County where Rosewood once stood, was victim of an assault near the property. Dunn told police the driver of a pickup truck made several dangerous passes at him and his group gathered on the side of a public roadway. The driver screamed a racial epithet at them. The Levy County Sheriff’s Office later arrested David Allen Emanuel, 61, and charged him with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, according to media reports from September.

Person gestures to others in field
In a 2013 photo, historian Marvin Dunn leads a tour of the site of the Rosewood massacre for students of Eastside High School in nearby Gainesville, Florida. Over a decade ago, Dunn purchased a parcel located where Rosewood once stood. (Credit: Douglas Dunn)

And as for that historical marker dedicated by then-Florida Gov. Bush? It is still there. But it is pocked with bullet holes from vandals. 

“Levy County and Rosewood in particular has an element of racism that is dangerous and easily provoked, and that has been clarified by what happened to me on Sept. 6,” Dunn said. “There have always been folks out there who don’t want any Black people coming back to Rosewood.”

That hasn’t stopped Dunn. The author of several books on Rosewood and on Black history, he bought the property with a partner after he discovered on the land the remains of railway tracks likely used by people escaping the massacre. 

It is, Dunn believes, just the second purchase by a Black person of land in Rosewood since the town was burned to the ground. A Black family had owned land in Rosewood in recent decades, Dunn said, but left in 2003.

In the years since, Dunn has worked cooperatively with many white local property owners to uncover relics of Rosewood. His land, now a private park, will be the scene of the wreath-laying ceremony on Jan. 8 that will kick off the centennial commemoration. He has raised more than $50,000 in donations to help clear the land.

“There is an importance in owning what I call the blood land, the land where these things happened, for the sake of keeping history alive,” Dunn said. “The best way to remember these experiences is to go to where the blood was shed.”

Picture at top: Attendees of a 2020 service to remember the victims of the 1923 Rosewood massacre gather at a historical marker erected in their honor. Next week, the Remembering Rosewood Centennial Commemoration will include a series of events held in the once-thriving Florida town as well as in nearby Gainesville. (Credit: Zack Wittman for The Washington Post via Getty Images)