Last year, in the deserted town of Rosewood, Florida, a man in a van drove by and shouted racist obscenities at Marvin Dunn, a black former teacher who owns five acres of land there. Then, the man lunged at Dunn, nearly hitting his son.
It was a stark reminder of the overt racism still present across America, especially given the very reason Dunn bought the land a decade ago: to restore and preserve an abandoned town where a massacre of black residents by a white crowd took place exactly 100 years ago. .
Although the Rosewood Massacre is an instructive part of Florida history, it is not widely known or taught in most schools. But this year marks the 100th anniversary of racist violence against black residents of a small rural town. As anti-black racism continues to plague America today, from police brutality to arrests of black voters, Rosewood descendants and scholars believe Floridians should learn more about the event in order to better understand persistent racial disparities.
In the early 20th century, Rosewood was a quiet little town, a railroad “whistle stop” about an hour southwest of Gainesville. The population of 638 was predominantly black and relatively prosperous, built primarily around two black families who owned turpentine mills. The town had schools, churches, two general stores, and a baseball team, the Rosewood Stars.
In January 1923, a black drifter was charged with assaulting a white woman in Sumner, a mile away. In response, a mob of white vigilantes lynched a Rosewood blacksmith who was supposedly hiding the wanderer. As people tried to flee and hide in nearby swamps, the mob – now between 200 and 300 people – stormed and ransacked Rosewood. Despite some resistance, they fired on the fleeing people and set fire to houses, churches and eventually the whole town.
Immediately afterwards, the inhabitants fled, leaving the city completely deserted. Eight people have been confirmed dead, but modern estimates are closer to 40. “This little self-contained community was destroyed,” says Maxine Jones, a history professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. A grand jury has never prosecuted.
A lost story is found
In 2004, Rosewood was declared a heritage site, and last January a wreath-laying ceremony marked the centennial. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle also starred in a 1997 film about Rosewood. But these relatively recent recognitions came after a long period of silence.
In the decades since Rosewood, much of the story has been lost, as survivors rarely told about it. Jonathan Barry-Blocker, whose grandfather survived the massacre, is a law professor at the University of Florida. He says people didn’t want to relive the trauma by discussing it; her grandfather, who fled Rosewood at age 13, barely said a word.
Perhaps more pressing, silence was a means of literally surviving. Rosewood was not an isolated incident; it came at the height of racist violence in southern Jim Crow, at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was at its height and lynchings were widespread. Massacres have taken place across the country, most famously in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a thriving community known as Black Wall Street was burned down.
“Whether [Black communities] were a little too affluent for the time, or the locals were a little too outspoken or confident,” says Barry-Blocker, “you ran the risk of being driven out of town, killed, or just economically decimated.
Florida itself has experienced several violent episodes. In Ocoee, now a suburb of Orlando, 30 to 35 black people were killed on Presidential Election Day in 1920, largely in an effort to prevent them from voting. During the 50-year period from 1880 to 1930, Florida had the most lynchings per capita. Lynchings typically included black veterans of the World Wars; in the small town of Newberry, one of six lynchings involved a pregnant woman.
People knew that talking could encourage more violence. “It was like a rinse and repeat thing,” Barry-Blocker says. “In the Deep South, if you experience violence, you shut up and try to blend in to the best of your ability.”
Rosewood made history in that it was the first time a state government financially acknowledged violence against black Americans, after survivors and descendants gathered for restitution in 1993. Jones , the history professor, was one of the scholars who wrote a historical report to document it. the state.
The following year, Florida passed the Rosewood Compensation Bill, a $2.1 million fund, offering $150,000 to anyone who could prove they owned ancestral land at the time. Only nine people received the full amount. Later, a scholarship fund established up to 50 offspring per year eligible for subsidized tuition at public universities.
Barry-Blocker says it was a “phenomenal” job of fixing this problem, but his grandfather’s claim was dismissed because he had no proof of ownership. He says they have not seen real justice in the form of accountability and appropriate financial redress, but admits it is difficult to assess culpability now, generations later, as perpetrators and victims original are long gone.
Telling the real story runs into obstacles
For Jones, the answer is not a question of money. “I don’t think reparations is necessarily about handing someone a check,” she says. “There’s no way to really compensate for the psychological trauma that’s been passed down from generation to generation.” Rather, it’s about getting people to finally tell the story after a century so that people are aware of it and can have much-needed conversations about race in America.
Part of the 1994 bill stated that Florida public schools teach rosewood, but there is little evidence that they do. Barry-Blocker never heard of it. In St. Petersburg, father-of-two Matthew Maichuk said he didn’t know until long after his school years. “It’s Florida history,” he said. ” It’s here. It should not be whitewashed.
More recently, in 2020, it was Governor Ron DeSantis who declared a day of remembrance for the Ocoee Massacre and ordered all public schools to teach about it. But since then, apparently for political reasons, DeSantis has severely restricted teaching about racist episodes in American history. The Stop WOKE Act eliminates any instruction that would make students feel guilty or uncomfortable, making discussions about concepts like repairs nearly impossible. Two years after his Ocoee statement, DeSantis vetoed a budget that would fund a documentary about the episode for schools.
Teaching about rosewood and other events would provide insight into current issues in America. It would help illustrate the roots of police brutality and why many black people are often suspicious of law enforcement and government, Barry-Blocker says. The Ocoee Massacre may help Americans understand why protecting the right to vote is so imperative.
It would also help show how today’s huge racial wealth gap has its roots in incidents like Rosewood, where white people destroyed or stole black-owned land and property. “It’s not because black people are inferior or lazy,” Jones says, “or any of the other reasons society has used to explain why black people are the face of poverty in this country.”
If the state doesn’t want to educate about the past or forces educators to water it down, other organizations can play a role, Jones says. Marvin Dunn, the professor who owns five acres of Rosewood, has spent time clearing brush and restoring the area for tourists. He now conducts tours of the site as part of statewide “Teach the Truth” tours that he offers to high school students.
Many of the students are black, and it’s equally important, Jones says, that they know their own history and what they’ve overcome. “It can’t just be about what happened to black people,” she says. “It also has to be about black resilience and how black people have survived despite racism and oppression. How they escaped out of nowhere.