The 1923 Rosewood Massacre: Finding the Past in the Present

When it comes to analyzing the Rosewood Massacre, the issue historians have doesn’t relate to the sporadic details of the event—which to this day have remained conflicting—but rather the elongated silence from African Americans who were directly impacted by these acts of racial terror, carried out by racist White Southerners throughout the 1920s. Florida, our setting for the topic at hand, would ironically witness roughly “307 lynching victims between 1877 – 1950’’ as well as an ‘’overall per capita rate reaching 0.541 (EJI, “History of Racial Terror’’, pg. 17).’’ Although the incidents that took place on New Year’s Day in 1923 were unique to the town of Rosewood, occupied by predominantly Black residents, racial terror on its own was not a unique occurrence. This was the South. And although records will tell us the number of race related murders was either this or that, it’s undeniable that these numbers theoretically stand as an estimate. History has a pattern of being occupied black holes. These black holes represent both the number of unreported deaths of African Americans and individuals who escaped racial terror without a mutter to their own family. This is where the importance of analyzing the social consequences of events like the Rosewood Massacre comes along. How does the fear of being caught for telling the truth have to do with modern-day misinterpretations of the event? Can silence actually fog numbers, or erase a once flourishing town from existence? The answer is yes.

Believe it or not, signs of human inhabitance in the area of Rosewood today has been reduced to nothing more than rural scrubland along state road 24, “a lonely highway in central Florida bordered by swamp, slash pine, and palmetto (The Guardian “Rosewood Massacre’’, pg. 1).’’ Acknowledgement of the massacre itself can be found on a small plaque placed alongside the road, which briefly sets life to the panic of that day.

Back in 1923, Rosewood was located roughly three miles from the next neighboring White town, Sumner, and 48 miles from Gainesville. On January 1st, local Sumner resident Fannie Taylor became a victim of physical abuse from her husband, who had beaten her upon returning home. Taylor, in fear of being judged for the state of their marriage, had insisted the persecutor was Black. It didn’t take long before a large, angry crowd had accumulated—some traveling as far as Gainesville to help locate the fugitive and carry out justice. Seven days passed, and it was during this time that hundreds of mob-like lynchings were brought upon the town of Rosewood. Robie Mortin was one of the lucky ones, surviving the incident and later confessing that the prolonging of the killings was due to the deputy sheriff. “That lady never dropped a name as to who did what to her,’’ said Mortin. “Just said a Negro, a Black man. But when the sheriff came along with his posse and everything, he put a name to the person: Jesse Hunter (The Guardian “Rosewood Massacre’’, pg. 1).’’ As weeks passed, it became evident that the settlement, largely due to fires that were set a few days after New Year’s, was completely erased from the map. Rosewood was unrecognizable—nonexistent. And the physiological impact the event had on the Black residents was undeniable. There’s a pattern of “I don’t knows’’ or “It was so long ago.’’ Then there are those who would eventually become brave enough to tell their family or the press. These recollections, although sincere, were belated due to a lingering fear of being hunted down for simply speaking up. Many surrounding White residents, on the other hand, have confronted conversations surrounding Rosewood differently. “It didn’t happen’’ and “It’s time to move on’’ were all too common. It wouldn’t be until 1993 when reporter Gary Moore traveled to Cedar Key, roughly ten miles away from Rosewood, and was exposed to the grim details of 1923. “Like the public at large,’’ Moore said, “I personally had never heard of Rosewood and held dim assumptions that any such incident would long ago have been thoroughly researched and publicized by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and advocacy organizations (The Guardian, “Rosewood Massacre’’, pg. 1).’’ Although a brighter light has been shed on the name Rosewood, this still remains true due to denial and physiological blindness.

60 Minutes covered Moore’s story, which eventually led to many other media sources, as well. By April of 1994, the House had passed a bill to compensate at least $150,000 for each Rosewood victim. The vote was a hard 71 – 40, a total in which, although triumphant, stands as a reminder that this division between personal morals and morals based on prejudice remain relevant.

But what about the social impact Rosewood had inflicted on African Americans? There are three things to examine here. The first is the immediate impact of the event. Not only did many Blacks find themselves fleeing into neighboring towns, swamps, or seeking shelter from sympathetic Whites who had offered their home as temporary shelter, it was really the Jim Crow atmosphere of the early 20th century on top of the extensive nature of the mob-like killings that engraved the idea that it was better to remain silent than speak out. The result of this, and leading to the second point of observation, is misinterpretations regarding the timeline of the massacre, itself. At least one official report claimed that ‘’six Blacks and two Whites were killed. However, many eyewitness accounts insist this number was anywhere from 27 – 150 (Black Past, “Rosewood Massacre 1923’’, pg. 1).’’ This is a major conflict of interest, as without the authenticity of the 1920s press or authorities, this part of history will likely remain a mystery—an occurrence that stands as a disservice to the African Americans who perished on that day, their families, and future generations who may overlook Rosewood simply because of the vagueness that surrounds it.

The importance of studying historical perspectives, especially those seen in Rosewood, comes into play when reflecting upon 21st century political conversations. Yes, we in many ways differ from the social atmosphere of the 1920s and even the 60s; however, when it comes to understanding modern forms of racial terror, even in 2019, we realize that racism and discrimination never really went away. Like a virus, these things simply evolved, because the old strand couldn’t survive these new vaccinations: opportunity for advancement, inclusive conversations, individual success and influence and landmarks such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Perspectives in history teach us where we came from, what we earned along the way, and what we need to improve on. Rosewood is not just a historical tragedy, but a telescope that looks through the lenses of our ancestors, both Black and White. And although we may see a different world, when looking back at the 1920s, acknowledging responsibility for the past is the only way we can truly live up to what the United States only claims to support: equality and justice for all.

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by M. G. Hughes

Born and raised in the little coastal town of Oceanside, California, M. G. Hughes began writing at a young age when her grandmother, Gracie Lee Osborne Hughes, an accomplished educator, encouraged her to write in composition books. Throughout her primary school years Hughes continued to develop a passion for short stories, and it was upon reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby in her senior year of high school that she felt inspired to embark on a full-length novel. That story would be Margot Lee. But after experiencing a prolonged period of writer’s block with the plot, Hughes would turn to poetry for (seemingly) temporary creative relief. The rest is history.

As of 2019, and at just the age of twenty, Hughes has been featured across nine literary magazines and three anthologies. Her debut book, I Only Have Marmalade, muses themes of poetry, prose, general philosophy, and literary fiction.


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