The Rosewood Massacre

Present day, a drive down state road 24, in central Florida, will yield little more than a monotonous view of swamp and palm trees. And if you happen to close your eyes for a second or two, you’ll miss the small sign on the side of the road that commemorates the memory of dark days. Yet, if you travelled this area a little less than a hundred years ago, instead of being met with a small placard on the side of the road mentioning the ghastly history of Rosewood, you would have seen the small, prosperous town for yourself.

Rosewood was settled in 1845, and was quite self-sustaining. The settlement laid 9 miles from Cedar Key, around 45 miles from Gainesville, and was centered around the timber industry. (Pencil mills, turpentine mills, and sawmills were an irreplaceable part of the area’s identity and livelihood) Initially, Rosewood contained both black and white residents, however, due to a variety of factors such as the closing of the pencil mills, many whites moved to Sumner which was located about 3-4 miles away.

Sumner was predominantly white; and by 1900, Rosewood was predominantly black. At its peak, Rosewood had its own baseball team, a school, a few churches, two general stores, a post office, and a train depot. However, things wouldn’t stay this way for long.

On New Year’s Day, 1923, Fannie Taylor’s neighbor came running towards her house, gun in hand, after hearing what sounded like screams. Upon arrival, Fannie Taylor told her neighbor that she’d been assaulted by a black man and that he was in the house, however, no black man was ever found. It didn’t take long for the news to circulate throughout all of Sumner, and with the additional belief that she hadn’t only been beaten, but raped as well. During this time, the simplest hint of interracial sexuality was beyond taboo, and being in Florida didn’t help things, as the state possessed one the highest percentages of lynching victims, per capita, between the years of 1880 and 1950.

The news spread amongst the various white communities and it didn’t take longer for anger to swell at the thought of a black man having laid his hand on a white woman, even if the facts didn’t line up. In actuality, Fannie Taylor had been having an affair with another man while her husband was away, and during one of their secret rendezvous, her lover beat her and then ran away when she screamed. Of course, she couldn’t let the community know that she was an adulteress, so in an attempt to keep her unfaithfulness a secret, she used a lie that was proven then, and to some degree is still proven now to work time and time again: “the big, scary, black man assaulted/raped/beat me”. That’s all it took; the spark was lit: furious mobs of white men, from as far as Gainesville, grouped together, not “to find the perpetrator” but rather to use this chance as an excuse to raze the once prosperous town of Rosewood to the ground, and to lynch, brutalize, and rape as they pleased.

The angry mob believed that the “rapist” was a recent prison escapee named Jesse Hunter that had taken up hiding within Rosewood, and that he had two accomplices by the name of Sam Carter and Aaron Carrier. Carrier would later be captured and incarcerated, however, Carter would be brutally lynched. (Even going so far as to cut off his fingers and ears) The men even took pieces of his clothing as souvenirs.

The smoldering ruins of the two-story house where black inhabitants defended themselves. 

The smoldering ruins of the two-story house where black inhabitants defended themselves. 

Members of the mob also suspected Aaron’s cousin, Sylvester Carrier, who was a Rosewood resident, of harboring the “rapist fugitive”, thus, on January 4th, a group of around 30 men surrounded the Carrier home, which at the time was inhabited by 20-25 people (including children) that were in need of refuge during the neighborhood assault. When Sylvester’s mother, Sarah, came to the porch to confront the mob, she was promptly shot in the head. Afterwards, Sylvester defended his home and its inhabitants to the best of his ability; the standoff lasted hours with 4 people being wounded, and 2 white men being killed, before Sylvester himself suffered fatal wounds and died. The remaining survivors fled out the back of the house and into the swamp where other residents of Rosewood had gathered in hiding.

The next day the Carrier home was burned to the ground; however, news of the standoff  had reached the ears of the masses, and the fact that blacks had taken up arms against whites, further inflamed the emotions of many white southerners, and led to the gathering of a few hundred men to take part in the complete destruction of Rosewood: animals were slaughtered (including dogs), churches were burned, house after house became pillars of smoke, as what was and what could have been, instantly became just another hideous blip on the American history timeline. The official death toll was 6 blacks and 2 whites, however, other accounts, suggest a larger body count.

This incident, like many other disgusting elements of our racial history, would be intentionally buried and would only survive for decades through word of mouth within the black community of survivors. That is, until the early 1990’s, when reporter, Gary Moore, broke the story wide open using information he received from descendants of the survivors. The report led to a documentary with 60 minutes, a movie directed by John Singleton (trailer below), and also, to some extent, justice, as payment for losses incurred were compensated for by the state of Florida.

In April of 1994, the House passed a bill to compensate victims of the attack, and a few days later, the Senate passed a matching bill. As The Guardian stated in its piece about Rosewood: "....The law which provided in total, 2.1 million, for the survivors, improbably made Florida one of the only states to create a reparations program for the survivors of racialized violence, placing it among federal programs that provided payments to Holocaust survivors and interned Japanese Americans."

Official Trailer - Jon Voight, Don Cheadle Movie HD A dramatization of a 1923 horrific racist lynch mob attack on an African American community.