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Tales of terror and shame

Arnett Goins spoke somberly but with grace Friday about an event buried so deep in shame and fear that he never discussed it with his wife of 50 years.

The destruction of the hamlet of Rosewood 71 years ago came alive in the words of Goins and three other survivors during a legislative hearing Friday.

"They bust right in that front room and come right into the hallway," Goins said. The men had called for Goins' grandmother, Sarah Carrier, to come out.

"Grandmama didn't want to go out so the mob just started shooting in the house," Goins said. Sarah Carrier was shot through the head.

The survivors told the story from the eyes of children, dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night and forced to hide in the woods on a cold winter night.

They managed to escape from the attackers and were led by an adult through a swamp. They hid in the woods for two or three days.

Goins' uncle, James Carrier, went back into town even though it was well known that any black man's life was in danger.

"They caught him and made him dig his grave and they shot him down his grave," he said. "That was my granddaddy's brother."

Now in their late 70s and 80s, the survivors who testified Friday were children in January 1923 when a white mob looking for a suspect in an alleged rape attacked and killed black residents, torched homes and confiscated their land.

The vigilante violence wiped out Rosewood, a prosperous black community in Levy County on State Road 24 between Otter Creek and Cedar Key.

At least eight people died, two of them white.

Hearing Officer Richard Hixson of the House Judiciary Committee will make a recommendation on whether to grant a claim for $7-million to compensate the survivors of Rosewood and their descendants.

The House bill, sponsored by Reps. Miguel DeGrandy, R-Miami, and Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, would then go to the Judiciary Committee.

If it is approved there, it will go to the House floor. A Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, must track a similar path to passage.

"It's going to be tough," Jones said.

"I don't think there is going to be a single legislator who's going to vote for this bill without knowing why they're voting for it."

The claims bill seeks $7-million in compensation for 11 survivors and 45 descendants, but lawyers for the Rosewood families say they expect the number of claimants to grow.

The testimony Friday provided a rare window on an episode in Florida history that had remained buried for two generations.

Goins, 79, has lived in St. Petersburg since 1932. He plastered lath work and for almost 50 years worked as a "boot black," shining shoes at West Barber Shop on 22nd Street S.

In 1923, he was an 8-year-old boy who hid under a bed upstairs in his grandmother's house while a gun battle raged. The hostilities reached a furious pitch when Goins' uncle, Sylvester Carrier, shot to death white men who broke down the door of the house. Carrier later was shot dead.

As Goins and three other survivors _ Minnie Lee Langley, Willie Evans and Wilson Hall _ testified in emotional detail, seven TV cameras recorded the hearing in a packed committee room at the Capitol.

The witnesses were helped to the table by younger members of their families.

The survivors at times choked up as they talked of mothers, grandmothers, uncles or siblings who had died at the hands of the mob.

The women and children of Rosewood escaped with the help of two white men, John and William Bryce, who ran a railroad and traded with Rosewood's hunters and trappers.

Like the other witnesses, Goins has long refused to discuss the events of 71 years ago.

"No telling what might happen," he said.

Goins' daughter, Annette Goins Shakir, said the Rosewood survivors always kept the details of the massacre secret.

"As children, we knew the adults would talk about something we were not supposed to hear," said Shakir, a 1961 graduate of Gibbs High School who earned a doctorate at Florida State University and is married to the president of Tougaloo College in Mississippi.

The survivors described a peaceful and industrious community lost forever.

Rosewood had stores, two-story homes, a black Masonic lodge, three churches, a one-room schoolhouse, a turpentine mill, baseball field and train depot. Residents farmed, hunted, trapped or worked in the timber industry.

"All we needed was God and God was all around us," said Wilson Hall, 78.

"We didn't need nothing. Everybody would help everybody else."

The mob that burned Rosewood started out as a posse formed after a white woman, Frances "Fannie" Taylor, accused a black man of attacking her.

Rosewood residents think the man was the white lover of Mrs. Taylor who was lying to hide the affair from her husband.

"We will admit this was a sorry damn period in Florida's history," said Jim Peters, the lawyer representing the state.

"Whatever damage and trauma were visited on those claimants is no greater than the damage to other families of any race who were lynched or murdered and felt that police powers were denied."

The bill's sponsors said they will try to impress on lawmakers that Rosewood was different because Gov. Cary Hardee knew of the mayhem from news reports and his own inquiry, yet did nothing.

"A lynching was spontaneous and the governor didn't know about it," Jones said.

"Nothing else so devastated an entire community. We're not dealing with individuals or flash acts of terror. If we can convey those points accurately and fairly, we will win this."

Carolyn Tucker, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, said her interviews with six survivors indicated they suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, characterized by extreme stress, fear, terror, feelings of helplessness and emotional numbness.

Peters argued it would be impossible to pay claims for 56 people without evaluating the individuals.

"It's not some long-forgotten ancient chapter in Florida's sometimes-violent history," said Steve Hanlon, a lawyer representing the Rosewood families.

"It is a deep, dark, present reality in my clients' lives today, tomorrow and the next day."