Senate okays Rosewood compensation

Published April 9, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

Ten-year-old Benea Ousley, wearing her Easter dress and a gold-and-white ribbon in her hair, stood on the old Capitol steps Friday and recited a poem about the Rosewood massacre.

The poem spoke of how violence, sudden and permanent, wiped out the tiny Levy County town where her grandmother was born. It ended: "Yes we stand strong, proud and free. For we are the Rosewood family."

Family members gazed at Benea with tears in their eyes. A measure of justice, delayed for 71 years, had come at last.

State senators gave final passage Friday to the most emotional and dramatic claims bill ever to reach the Legislature. If Gov. Lawton Chiles signs the bill, as expected, Florida will compensate survivors of the Rosewood massacre and lift the cloud on a shameful episode in state history.

"Today signals a new beginning," said Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, the Senate sponsor. "Rosewood has become a symbol of secret deaths and atrocities that took place throughout this nation in an era that has slipped from view.

"But that era has continued to burden us, to hamper our relationship and to keep us from being fair to each other. We have a choice here today to remove some of that burden and gain momentum that will help make Florida fair to all its citizens."

The Senate agreed, voting 26-14 to approve the bill, which already had been passed by the House.

Most times legislators grudgingly approve bills that provide damages to people who have suffered at the hands of the state. The Rosewood victory writes a new chapter in Florida history.

It's the first time legislators have reached so far back in time to provide money to the victims of past mistakes.

Steven Hanlon, one of the attorneys who worked for months pushing the case for no fee, said Chiles planned to sign the bill during a ceremony at Rosewood. The spot where the town once stood is marked only by a green-and-white highway sign east of Cedar Key.

The bill pays four survivors $150,000 each for emotional trauma they suffered as children. Among them is Arnett T. Goins, a St. Petersburg resident. As many as seven other living survivors who lived in Rosewood before it was wiped out in January 1923 are eligible to apply through the state attorney general for the money. The bill also sets up scholarships for descendants.

For the bill to succeed, the black caucus had to force leaders to push it to passage by threatening to withhold votes from other important issues. On the Senate floor, supporters turned back one last effort to strip the money from the bill and leave only the scholarships. Opponents have argued the bill opens the gate for similar claims bills based on civil-rights violations or atrocities against Seminole Indians.

Sen. Charles Williams, D-Tallahassee, said lawyers used emotionalism and loaded words "to shock us into voting for this measure."

"Let me ask you, "How long do we have to pay for the sins of our forefathers?' " Williams said.

But Jones said the law clearly would bind no future Legislature.

The Rosewood case stands alone, he said, as the only example of government culpability where officials knew of the mob violence and failed to act. "Our system of justice failed the citizens of Rosewood," Jones said.

Bay area votes

On the Rosewood settlement:

Democrats for: Jim Hargrett, Tampa; Karen Johnson, Inverness.

Democrats against: none.

Republicans for: Charlie Crist, St. Petersburg; Curt Kiser, Palm Harbor.

Republicans against: Malcolm Beard, Plant City; Ginny Brown-Waite, Brooksville; John Grant, Tampa; Donald Sullivan, Seminole.