A small town in Levy County, Fla. became ground zero for historical events that helped define the conversation around race and reparations in America.
Located nine miles east of Cedar Key near the Gulf of Mexico, Rosewood, Fla. was founded in 1847. The town had a population of 200, mostly African-American families, and a lone white family, the Wrights, who owned the last remaining store. Some years before its infamous demise, Rosewood was a bustling and fiscally diverse town with black landowners. It was estimated that Rosewood’s families owned up to 300 acres each — a fact that was instrumental in their unprecedented reparations win decades later. Many of those families called grand two-story residences, with such luxuries as parlors and pianos, home while others tilled smaller plots and had more modest accommodations. Life in Rosewood dared to boast promise and security in the Jim Crow South, but that charmed existence was shattered when a vicious tale devastated the lives of the close-knit community and destroyed the town.
Rosewood, FL families were a diverse crowd of prominent landowners, farmers and businessmen before the massacre.
The Levy County sheriff Bob Walker, holds a shotgun allegedly used by Sylvester, a black resident of Rosewood, to shoot and kill two deputized white men who were at his door in 1923.
January 1, 1923, a married white Sumner, Fla. woman claimed that she had been attacked by an unidentified black man. Her husband and a band of angry white men invaded Rosewood in search of her alleged perpetrator. The mob brutally tortured and lynched, Sam Carter, and also tried to lynch Aaron Carrier, who was dragged behind a car and left for dead. No one was immune to their rage. With a houseful of terrified children huddling inside, prominent Rosewood resident Sarah Carrier, was gunned down on her doorstep, and when her son Sylvester fought back, killing two white men, he was murdered as well. Exaggerated reports of his self-defense panicked nearby white citizens and the mob swelled with numbers from neighboring counties, including the Ku Klux Klan. Days of terror and chaos ensued. Residents fleeing the violence were forced to seek refuge in nearby woods and swamps, while mobs hunted them and razed Rosewood to the ground.
Women and children — men were not allowed — were later evacuated by rail to Gainesville, Fla. with help from white Rosewood store owner John Wright and his friends, the Bryce Brothers, who owned a train. In the Jim Crow south where blacks were regulalry terrorized, many survivors assumed new identities, never speaking of the tragedy. There were eight officially documented deaths — six black residents and two white attackers — however, there is no way to account for the lives that may have been lost during the frantic escape or the unknown number of physical and psychological traumas of the Rosewood massacre. A Florida grand jury was convened in February 1923 to discuss the massacre, but the jury determined that there was no evidence on which to base an indictment.
The only structure left standing after the smoke cleared a century ago — the home of the only white residents of Rosewood, store-owner Wright — and a humble historical marker on Florida State Road 24, dedicated in 2004 by then Gov. Jeb Bush as a Florida Heritage Landmark, are all that mark the once vibrant town. The resilience and promise of the town rested with the descendants of Rosewood, though. They may have been bruised but they were not broken.
May 4, 1994, Governor Chiles signed into law what had been perhaps the most controversial claim bill ever considered by the Florida Legislature.' House Bill 591, which sought compensation for families of Rosewood
After an investigative journalist published a comprehensive article on Rosewood in 1982, a CBS 60 Minutes report aired in December 1983. In 1994, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 591, which acknowledged the destruction of the town, and the failure of government officials to thoroughly investigate the incident and secure the area for the safe return of displaced residents. Descendants of Rosewood were awarded $2.1 million dollars making them the only African Americans to receive reparations from a legislative body in America.