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Payment delays upset massacre descendants

Lengthy delays in compensating the descendants of the Rosewood massacre are starting to fray the nerves of some family members.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth was enlisted Friday to help referee a squabble over payments to descendants of families who lost property after a racist mob wiped out the black community near Gainesville more than 72 years ago.

The attorney general's office is trying to wrap up a program to reimburse descendants up to $500,000. The money is part of a $2-million package approved more than a year ago by lawmakers for survivors and descendants.

Rosewood was destroyed in January 1923 when a group of whites, angry after an unsuccessful search for a black man accused of assaulting a white woman, destroyed nearly every building in the community of about 120 people. At least six blacks and two whites died.

On Friday, representatives of descendants issued a press release that accused the attorney's general office of dragging its feet in approving payments. It also accused the state of planning to pay less than half of the $500,000 to descendants. Any unspent balance would revert to the state.

The attorney general's office said it never intended to send any money back to state coffers.

Officials said they submitted names Friday of 80 descendants who will receive anywhere from $500 to $1,200 apiece next month. Another 40 to 45 descendants will share the balance of the $500,000.

Nine elderly survivors already received $150,000 apiece from the state at the beginning of the year.

Shortly after the critical statement Friday afternoon, Butterworth was on the phone with attorneys for the Rosewood families and his office to try to clear up any misunderstanding.

"He made it clear that it's been a goal all along of his to get the money out," said Steve Hanlon, a Holland & Knight lawyer representing the Rosewood families.

Gregory Durden, the chief of the attorney general's civil rights office, said the investigation into family lineages to ensure applicants are eligible for compensation has been in-depth and complex.

"We're not stalling anything at all," Durden said. "They don't understand."

Durden had hoped to conclude the process, which included checking out more than 1,000 individuals, by early June. But the number of potential descendants increased, forcing his office to continue their probe. He hopes to complete it next month.

Arnett Doctor, who has represented the families in legislative proceedings and the compensation program, said he had the news release issued because he was frustrated with the delays.

Hanlon, after his meeting with Butterworth, said he thought the release was premature. But Doctor said he was pleased it got Butterworth involved.

"It appears to me all of this has transpired after the press release came into being," said Doctor, who will receive $6,000 for his family's lost property.