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Rosewood Massacre

Began: January 1, 1923
Notable: Riot / Massacre
Location: Rosewood, Florida

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Show Notes

Rosewood was a small town located in central west Florida a few miles from Florida’s west coast and approximately 50 miles southwest of Gainesville. The town was first established in 1845 by a group of settlers that included both Black and White people. Members of both races lived in the town until the post-Civil War and post-Reconstruction introduction of legalized and formal segregation.

A period of White flight began in the 1890s when businesses and industries that were dependent on local cedar trees were impacted by severe deforestation in the area. Some residents relocated just a few miles west to the town of Sumner. Within a few decades, Rosewood was predominantly Black.

By the 1920s, the town was still quite small with only about 200 residents. But excluding the family that ran the town’s general store, the rest of the population was entirely Black. Despite losing some of its residents, the town flourished and had become quite prosperous. Rosewood’s residents had developed the town into a firmly middle-class community where they built their own homes and had a local baseball team.

Fannie Taylor was a 22-year-old White woman living with her husband James in nearby Sumner. On January 1, 1923, a neighbor heard Taylor screaming and found her at home alone with several bruises. Taylor told the neighbor that she’d been assaulted by an unnamed Black man who came into the house and attacked her. The neighbor alerted the sheriff, Robert Elias Walker, and Taylor provided a statement where she clarified that while she had been physically attacked she was not raped.

Given her injuries, it’s likely that Taylor was indeed attacked. But some members of the Black community who lived in Rosewood but worked in Sumner whispered that Taylor had been attacked by her lover, not a stranger. She then came up with the lie about a Black assailant out of fear for how her husband might respond to learning that she was having an affair. But, these are rumors that have never been officially confirmed so we might never learn the truth about what happened on that day.

As word of the attack spread, the details took on a life of their own and the incident was embellished with inaccuracies. Taylor had stated that she’d been assaulted, not raped. Yet, in hearing about the assault, people took this to mean that she’d been sexually assaulted and thus raped. This enraged locals which built on the tension that had been sparked by a recent Ku Klux Klan rally in Gainesville.

Detailed map of Rosewood Massacre sites.

After learning about the attack on his wife, James Taylor formed a posse with other angry White residents of Sumner. White residents from other nearby towns began arriving to join the posse along with an estimated 500 Klan members who had attended the Gainesville rally. Taylor had vaguely described her attacker as a Black man but had not provided a name or seemingly much of a description.

As the posse moved through the area they began to randomly attack any Black men they came across. Jesse Hunter was a convict who had escaped from a chain gang and was suspected to be hiding out in Rosewood with help from locals. For some unknown reason, an assumption was then made that Hunter was the one who had attacked Taylor. This prompted the mob to descend on Rosewood.

Whether deemed as such before or after the massacre, Aaron Carrier and Sam Carter were assumed to have assisted Hunter. The mob attacked and tortured Carter in an attempt to learn Hunter’s whereabouts. When Carter gave in to their demands but was unable to guide them to Hunter, he was shot and hanged from a tree. As typically occurred at lynchings, parts of Carter’s body were cut off and distributed as souvenirs. Another faction of the mob made its way to Carrier’s home where he was kidnapped and dragged by a car back to Sumner. Once there, he was further beaten and tortured until the sheriff intervened and sent him to Gainesville for his safety.

Black people in the area who worked elsewhere were advised to stay at their place of employment if possible. Other residents of Rosewood who had been forewarned fled to the nearby swamps in search of safety. An estimated 25 people (consisting primarily of children) stayed at the home of Sarah Carrier who was Aaron’s aunt and did the Taylors’ laundry. An armed mob gathered at the house on January 4th and surrounded the home.

Most of Rosewood’s residents had fled instead of putting up a fight. But Sarah’s son Sylvester attempted to defend the house and its occupants. A gun battle began which continued through the night. At its conclusion, both Sylvester and Sarah had been killed along with two of the White attackers. It’s unclear if other adults were in the home or what happened to them. But the children were able to escape to the woods. Sarah’s other son, James, was later found by the mob and murdered over the graves of his mother and brother.

As word spread of Sylvester’s attempted defense and the resulting death of two White men, even more men joined the mob. The events had been distorted with reports of groups of armed Black people roaming the area in retaliation and far more White men having been killed. Still unable to locate Hunter, they turned their attention to the town of Rosewood itself. Churches, homes, and businesses were systematically burned and some people were shot as they tried to escape from the fires. In the end, only two structures remained relatively untouched: a house and the general store.

Earlier, the sheriff had declined the governor’s offer to send in the National Guard, under the misguided belief that he had the mob under control. And a grand jury later decided against indictments due to what it deemed a lack of evidence. The people of Rosewood were failed by law enforcement and the justice system.

Those who survived by hiding in the swamps or the homes of sympathetic White citizens eventually fled the town, leaving Rosewood abandoned within a few days. There was a real fear that the mob might return to destroy and kill again if any attempts were made to rebuild. Media attention died down and survivors either did not discuss the event or only did so in hushed tones.

The Rosewood Massacre was mostly forgotten in the mainstream until Gary Moore penned a series of articles about the event in 1982. Survivors and their descendants demanded reparations from the state. This resulted in $2 million in restitution, an educational fund, and a new investigation into the massacre. The Rosewood Massacre was further brought to the forefront with the 1997 release of John Singleton’s Rosewood.

Sources

  1. Bentley, Rosalind. 2017. “The Rosewood Massacre: How a Lie Destroyed a Black Town.” Ajc. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. November 14, 2017. https://www.ajc.com/news/national/the-rosewood-massacre-how-lie-destroyed-black-town/wTcKjELkGskePsWiwutQuO/.
  2. Brown, DeNeen L. 2021. “Remembering ‘Red Summer,’ When White Mobs Massacred Blacks from Tulsa to D.C.” National Geographic. National Geographic Partners, LLC. May 4, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/remembering-red-summer-white-mobs-massacred-blacks-tulsa-dc.
  3. Glenza, Jessica. 2016. “Rosewood Massacre a Harrowing Tale of Racism and the Road toward Reparations.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. January 3, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/03/rosewood-florida-massacre-racial-violence-reparations.
  4. Goodloe, Trevor. 2008. “Rosewood Massacre (1923).” BlackPast.org. March 28, 2008. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/rosewood-massacre-1923/.
  5. History.com Editors. 2021. “Rosewood Massacre.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. April 20, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/rosewood-massacre.

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