Skip to main content

The Rosewood Massacre: Hidden History of the U.S.

Kristine has a B.A. in Journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Michigan.

Smoldering ruins were all that remained of Rosewood, FL following the 1923 riot and massacre

Smoldering ruins were all that remained of Rosewood, FL following the 1923 riot and massacre

What Was the Rosewood Massacre?

In 1923, an alleged assault of a white woman led to the deaths of residents and the destruction of an entire Black community. It would take more than 70 years for the survivors and descendants of Rosewood, FL to receive not only restitution but also recognition of a riot and massacre that destroyed lives and shattered families.

The Community of Rosewood, FL

Originally settled in 1845, Rosewood, FL was a mixed community with both African American and white residents. However, Jim Crow practices and restrictive Black Code laws eventually led to Rosewood becoming a neighborhood of Black residents following the Civil War, according to the article “Rosewood Massacre” on History.com.

White residents eventually left Rosewood and settled in the nearby town of Sumner. In the 1920s, about 200 Black residents made their homes in Rosewood, along with one white family, who owned a house and ran the local general store.

Fannie Taylor Makes an Accusation

An uneasy calm existed between the two groups until Jan. 1, 1923. A 22-year-old white resident, Fannie Taylor, was found by a neighbor covered in bruises after he responded to her screams. Taylor claimed she had been assaulted by a Black man in her home, according to History.com

The incident was reported to Sheriff Robert Elias Walker. Taylor specifically told the Sheriff that she had not been raped.

Taylor’s husband, James, who was a foreman at the local mill, was furious over the alleged assault. James Taylor gathered an angry mob of white citizens who were intent on finding the perpetrator. Residents from neighboring counties, including a group of about 500 Ku Klux Klan members who were attending a rally in Gainesville, joined the search of the nearby wooded areas, according to History.com.

The Assault on Rosewood Begins

When word got out that an African American prisoner named Jesse Hunter had escaped from a chain gang, the mob became convinced that Hunter was the perpetrator of the assault. Assuming that Hunter was being hidden by the Black residents of Rosewood, they set immediately set upon the town.

When dogs led them to the home of a Rosewood resident named Aaron Carrier, they dragged him from his home. Carrier was the son of Sarah Carrier, who did laundry for the Taylors and other white families.

According to History.com, the mob forced Carrier from his home, tied him to the back of a vehicle, and dragged him to the town of Sumner, where they cut him loose and beat him. Sheriff Walker immediately stepped in to keep the mob from harming Carrier any further and took him to Gainesville, where he was placed in the protective custody of the local sheriff.

A Lynch Mob Forms

The mob, however, was not finished. They came to the home of another Black resident, a local blacksmith named Sam Carter. Carter was tortured and forced to falsely admit that he was hiding Hunter.

Carter led them to what he said was the hiding spot, but when they failed to find the escaped convict, someone in the crowd shot him. His body was left hanging in a nearby tree.

The local sheriff’s office had tried and failed to break up the white mobs attacking any Black person they could find. They advised Rosewood residents to remain in their place of business for safety reasons. However, many community members were hiding in their homes, which made them easy targets for the out-of-control vigilantes, according to History.com.

No One Was Safe

About 25 Rosewood community members were hiding in the home of Sarah Carrier, including a number of children. On the night of January 4th, an armed white mob surrounded the Carrier home. They demanded that Jesse Hunter—who they wrongly insisted was among the people hiding in the house—be turned over to them.

According to History.com, when the mob began firing on the home, Sarah’s son, Sylvester, fired back. He was killed along with Sarah, who was shot in the head. Two white men in the crowd were also killed.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Eventually, the mob broke down the door to the house. The rest of the residents hiding inside, including all of the children, were able to escape through a back door. They remained in hiding while the mob continued its murderous rampage.

Rumors Fuel Violence

News of the murders at the Carrier house began to spread. Newspapers claimed that a large number of white residents had been killed, while Black men in Rosewood were rioting in white neighborhoods. As the falsehoods spread, more armed white men poured into Rosewood.

The violent mob began roaming through neighborhoods torching churches and homes. Residents were shot as they fled the burning buildings. A woman named Lexie Gordon instructed her children to run when the mob approached her home. Suffering from typhoid fever and unable to flee, she was shot in the face and killed as she hid underneath her burning home, according to History.com.

A man named James Carrier, brother of Sylvester and a son of Sarah, initially hid in the swamps and eventually found shelter thanks to a local turpentine factory manager. He was unfortunately discovered by a white mob, who forced him to dig his own grave before shooting him dead.

Help From Strangers and Neighbors

Many residents hid in the local swamps, where they remained for days. Some were fortunate enough to receive help from white neighbors.

John and William Bryce drove a train they owned into Rosewood as the violence escalated. They loaded their train with women and children and transported them to safety. Fearing retribution from the white mobs, however, they refused to allow Black men to board, according to History.com.

John Wright, the white owner of the local grocery store, hid many of his neighbors in his home. Sheriff Walker helped many of the terrified residents reach the Wright house. From there, Wright helped them reach the Bryce brothers’ train and escape the area.

Rosewood, FL Is Destroyed

As the violence escalated, Florida Governor Cary Hardee offered to call out the National Guard. Sheriff Walker declined the help. After several days of mayhem, the mobs began to disperse. But on January 7th, many of the white rioters returned to finish off the town for good.

The white mob burned whatever structures remained in the town. They even shot animals that had been left behind by fleeing residents. The only building that was left standing was the home of store owner John Wright.

A Sham Investigation Convenes

Following the massacre, Governor Hardee appointed a grand jury and a special prosecutor to investigate. The jury heard the testimony of 30 mostly white witnesses and concluded there was not enough evidence to prosecute anyone for the violence perpetrated against the residents, according to the article “Rosewood Massacre (1923)” on the website Blackpast.org.

According to the official report filed by law enforcement regarding the incident, six Black residents and two white rioters were killed. The accounts of survivors, however, suggest a larger number of African Americans were slaughtered, according to Blackpast.org.

As for the surviving citizens of Rosewood, none of them ever returned. Many of the children who witnessed the massacre were sworn to silence, and no one spoke of the violence and bloodshed for fear of retribution. Even white residents of the area refused to speak of the incident.

A Legacy of Silence

As newspapers stopped reporting on the Rosewood Massacre over time, the story gradually faded from memory. With survivors reluctant to speak, their own descendants never knew of the horrors their ancestors survived.

As a child, Lizzie Robinson Jenkins recalls her mother telling her and her two siblings to run home from school each day as fast as they could while growing up in Archer, FL. She recalls the radio program Amos ’n’ Andy was often interrupted by her father telling the children to “Go upstairs, now!” when he heard revving engines. She remembers her aunt, Mahulda Carrier, hiding in a bedroom every time a car drove down their rural road.

She finally understood when her mother, Theresa Brown Robinson, quietly told her daughter the story of violence in Rosewood. Her aunt had been a schoolteacher in Rosewood and the wife of Aaron Carrier, who was nearly lynched by the mob until the sheriff took him into protective custody. Jenkins told this story to The Guardian in the article “Rosewood massacre a harrowing tale of racism and the road toward reparations.”

Jenkins then realized that the running and hiding during her childhood was a direct reaction to a message her parents and survivors received: Do not talk about Rosewood to anyone, ever.

Violence Recalled

Mahulda was also taken captive by the same mob that had beat her husband, Jenkins said. When she became defensive about their continuing questions regarding her husband’s alibi, she was punished for her “insolence.”

“They got Gussie, that was my aunt’s name, they tied a rope around her neck, however they didn’t drag her, they put her in the car and took her to Sumner. Don’t know if you know – a southern tradition is to build a fire … and to stand around the fire and drink liquor and talk trash,” Jenkins told The Guardian.

“So they had her there, like she was the [accused], and they were the jury, and they were trying to force her into admitting a lie. ‘Where was your husband last night?’ ‘He was at home in bed with me.’ They asked her that so many times so she got indignant with them … And they said, ‘She’s a bold bitch – let’s rape the bitch.’ And they did. Gang style.”

Silence Finally Broken

The stories of what happened to the residents of Rosewood remained untold until 1982. Gary Moore, a reporter with The St. Petersburg Times, wrote a series of articles on the Rosewood Massacre that garnered national attention. Survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, then began telling their stories.

With Jim Crow justice and lynch mobs no longer a threat, stories of rape, murder, looting, and arson finally surfaced. Also clear was the neglect by elected officials and law enforcement in Florida to bring the perpetrators to justice and make restitution to the victims. In 1993, Florida officials finally launched an investigation, details of which were released that year in a disturbing report, according to The Guardian.

Moore’s revelations of the massacre became a documentary on CBS’s 60 Minutes and garnered attention from other news outlets. Despite this, Moore would struggle for both academic and political acceptance of this account. He told The Guardian that 11 years after this story became public, there were still those who attempted to deny that the violence ever took place and sought to discredit him.

Restitution for Families

One of Moore’s sources was a descendent of Rosewood survivors named Arnett Doctor. The doctor spent many hours with Rosewood survivors, documenting their stories and gathering first-hand accounts of the violence and destruction.

Eventually, Doctor brought his findings to the law firm Holland & Knight. Together with the attorneys, Doctor would lobby the Florida legislature for restitution based on the private property rights of Rosewood survivors and descendants.

Families of victims were ultimately awarded $2 million, and an educational fund was established for Rosewood descendants in 1994, over 70 years after the massacre and massive destruction of property, according to The Guardian.

In 1997, the events of the tragic days in January 1923 were dramatized in John Singleton’s film, Rosewood. Starring Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, and Jon Voight, the film is based on events that led to the massacre and destruction of the town. According to IMDb.com, the film received ten nominations and three wins from film festivals and organizations, including the Paul Selvin Honorary Award from the Writers Guild of America.

Today, little trace of Rosewood remains. Although the house owned by the Wright family remains standing, only Palmetto trees and a historical marker on a highway mark the tragedy that cost the families of Rosewood all they had.

Sources and Further Reading

A home in Rosewood set ablaze by rioters

A home in Rosewood set ablaze by rioters

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Kristine Sorchilla Moore

Related Articles