The first week of the new year 1923 was not a good one for the residents of Rosewood, Fla., a small, predominantly Black whistle-stop in rural Levy County. The town met a tragic end.
Rosewood was settled around 1870 and was named for the red cedar trees that grew in the area. That wood supported a pencil factory. By 1890, however, most of the wood had been depleted. The pencil mill closed and most of the white families moved to the nearby town of Sumner. By 1900, the majority of Rosewood’s residents were Black. The town thrived with schools, churches and a post office. It was peaceful and prosperous.
The beginning of the end came on Jan. 1, 1923, when Fannie Coleman Taylor, a white woman who lived in Sumner, claimed that she had been attacked by a Black man. Sarah Carrier, who did laundry for Taylor, claimed that Taylor was assaulted by a white man who was there while her husband was away at work. Coleman’s husband called for help in finding who did it, and soon, hundreds of white men converged on the town in search of vigilante justice.
Suspicion fell on Jessie Hunter, a convict who had allegedly escaped from a road gang. A mob, armed with guns and dogs, searched the woods behind the Taylor home looking for Hunter. The dogs led them to the home of Aaron Carrier, nephew of Sarah Carrier. Aaron Carrier was tied to a car and dragged to Sumner. Sheriff Robert Elias Walker, seeing that the mob was growing increasingly violent, put Aaron Carrier into protective custody and urged Black workers at the turpentine mill to stay put for their own safety.
Next, the mob found local blacksmith Sam Carter. After being tortured into saying that he helped Hunter escape, Carter was shot and lynched. On Jan. 4, the mob descended on Rosewood and surrounded Sarah Carrier’s house, which was full of people, including children who were visiting for the holiday. Her son, Sylvester, and others in the home were armed and ready to defend themselves. Shots rang out and the house was riddled with bullets. The siege lasted into the next morning, and when the smoke cleared, Sarah and Sylvester Carrier were dead, along with at least two white men killed outside the house. The mob ransacked the house before setting it on fire and burning it to the ground. They would burn five more houses and a church that day. People ran for their lives.
Sheriff Walker worked with the Bryce brothers, who conducted a train to get Rosewood residents to safety. But some were not that lucky.
Rosewood resident Lexie Gordon was killed as she tried to flee her burning home. Mingo Williams, a turpentine worker from Sumner, happened upon part of the mob some 20 miles from Rosewood and was killed. James Carrier, Sarah’s son, emerged from hiding to return to his home, but he was found, taken to a graveyard, interrogated and shot.
News of the attack was reported in the papers as a race riot. The Black press praised the heroism of Rosewood’s residents while the white press vilified them as “a band of armed Negros.” The idea of Blacks arming themselves against whites in the Deep Jim Crow South was unthinkable–and big news.
On Jan. 7, the mob returned to finish destroying what was left of Rosewood. One by one, every Black-owned structure was destroyed. On Feb. 12, 1923, a grand jury was convened to investigate the massacre. After listening to the testimonies of 25 whites and eight Black witnesses, the jury reported that they could find no basis to prosecute. No one was ever punished for what happened at Rosewood. The actual number of people killed remains unknown.
Rosewood survivors were not quick to talk about what they had lived through. They settled in other cities and many changed their names for fear that whites would track them down. No one ever returned and the little town slipped into oblivion. The land where Rosewood once stood was confiscated under tax sales.
Aaron Carrier died in 1965. Sarah Carrier’s husband, Haywood, was on a hunting trip when the carnage broke out. He came home to find his wife and son dead and his home destroyed. He died a year later. Jessie Hunter was never found.
Fannie Taylor, whose horrific lie started the disaster, moved to another mill town with her husband, where she died of cancer.
In 1992, Rosewood survivor Lee Ruth remembered many of the events that occurred that week of January 1923. Not the least was her impression that “they killed everything in Rosewood. They didn’t want anything living in there. They killed everything.”
No apology or talk of compensation was offered until May 4, 1994, when the Florida Legislature agreed to give $2.1 million to survivors of the massacre and their descendants. On May 4, 2004, Gov. Jeb Bush dedicated a historic marker in memory of Rosewood and its citizens.
Rosewood is gone but not forgotten. Lizzie R. Jenkins is the niece of Rosewood teacher Mahulda Gussie Brown and director of the Real Rosewood Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the history of Rosewood. For more information, visit rose woodflorida.com.