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REVISITING ROSEWOOD // The voices of Rosewood

By the time area radio stations air the final version of his documentary on Rosewood next week, producer Alan Lipke knows listeners may already have heard a thing or two about the subject.

They may have read piles of articles in the Times, seen the newly released movie directed by earnest young filmmaker John Singleton or even watched the report by 60 Minutes, aired more than 10 years ago.

But when it comes to the story of this tiny, predominantly black Florida town and how it was wiped off the map by angry white mobs in 1923, there are precious few people who have heard the tale the way it should be told _ from the mouths of the survivors themselves.

"We probably had something like 1/2,000th the budget of the movie . . . but when it comes to exposing the audience to the experience of the people who were actually there, you can't beat the medium (of radio)," says Lipke, who cobbled together the first script for his Rosewood Reborn radio documentary in a cramped Tampa apartment/office space.

"People listening to this piece only hear the survivors and (narrator) James Earl Jones for the most part," he adds. "They hear the voices and create the pictures for themselves."

Though a rough cut of Lipke's hourlong documentary aired on Tampa-based community radio station WMNF-FM last year, the final version is only now reaching the airwaves _ just in time to ride the publicity generated by Singleton's movie Rosewood and the increased awareness that Black History Month traditionally brings.

Assembled on a shoestring budget of about $7,300 over the past two years, Lipke's incisive work navigates the sea of contradictions and controversies surrounding Rosewood _ culminating with a $2-million damage award from the State of Florida to survivors in 1994 _ by presenting the voices of survivors, historians and a few white people who were there.

"You're not abstracting people's feelings or telling people how to view something," the producer says. "If there's contradictions, you put those two conflicts together instead of playing omniscient narrator. Hopefully, you get people the closest to experiencing the conflict within themselves."

By now, the story of Rosewood has grown to near-legendary status. Sparked by a claim by a white woman, Fanny Taylor, on New Year's Day in 1923 that a black man attacked her, crowds of white vigilantes descended on the tiny Gulf Coast town of Rosewood for several days _ torching buildings and eventually killing a black man named Sam Carter.

It was a volatile time for black people in America, and Florida in particular. According to a historian quoted by Lipke in Reborn, between 1880 and 1923, a black person was lynched every two-and-a-half days in the United States, and in 1920, a white mob burned down a section of Ocoee _ a small town near Orlando _ when black people tried to assert their voting rights.

"(There) was the perception that African-American men had forgotten their place and begun to challenge whites," says historian Larry Rivers during the documentary. "One way to send a message to blacks, was that this person would be killed if this occurred."

"America is full of Rosewood sagas _ little communities of African Americans that were wiped out, either by fire or by Realtor," says James Tokely, Tampa's poet laureate, who reads clippings from black newspapers in Lipke's documentary. "Even today, we're still hitting and missing in our communication with each other. Rosewood teaches us it was the myths _ lies and stereotyping _ that led to what happened."

Some black survivors at Rosewood say Taylor, who was married, was actually beaten by a white lover and lied to cover up her adultery. Others say there was an attack, and some black Rosewood residents helped the assailant flee the area, prompting retaliation.

Even after then-Times reporter Gary Moore uncovered the story of the massacre in 1982 after nearly 60 years of cover-ups and silence, the ambiguities remained. And the 1994 vote by the state Legislature to award money to survivors _ heralded as the first time a state or federal government paid restitution to victims of mass racial violence _ only brought more controversies over what actually happened at Rosewood.

A self-described "white, Jewish guy" from New York, Lipke stumbled into the Rosewood project as he produced a series of stories on lawyer Steve Hanlon's attempts to press reparations claims for two survivors of the massacre.

As interviews with those involved began to pile up, Lipke knew he had a larger story sitting in rolls of unused tapes. "I've always been unhappy with how much tape remains in the can that you don't hear," he adds. "I went out of the way (then) to get long interviews with the survivors, beyond sound bites."

It took Lipke a year to win the two grants that would provide Rosewood Reborn's $7,300 budget _ allowing him to spend much of 1996 assembling the program, with about 70 percent of the quotes used coming from interviews and the rest from public testimony heard by the Legislature.

"For me, it was a labor of love," the producer says now. "What got under my skin most, was the passion it aroused between all the people who feel they own a part of the story. Many different people think the story belongs to them, and it's a powerful part for those of us who have gotten wrapped up in telling it."

In particular, Lipke says, two figures have asserted their own strong claims to versions of the Rosewood story: Arnett Doctor, a fiftysomething descendant of a Rosewood survivor who spearheaded the compensation case and served as a paid consultant for Singleton's movie; and Moore, the reporter who first uncovered the long-hidden story.

When Moore first wrote about Rosewood, he had a tough time attracting interest beyond the initial news stories and 60 Minutes' involvement, says Lipke, "because it was the Reagan era _ civil rights issues weren't the flavor of the month. Because of the been there/done that ethos, he didn't get a lot of attention."

Now that others have written books and produced movies on Rosewood, the subject bears an added poignancy that attracted Lipke, though few of these ownership issues found their way into his documentary.

"That was too much to load into a one-hour documentary," he says. "That's the one criticism I've heard about the documentary. People don't understand why Moore is so unhappy."

After seeing august actor James Earl Jones' name on Rosewood Reborn's credits, another pressing question surfaces: How does a independent radio producer get one of the biggest names in show business to lend his imposing baritone _ and a fair bit of prestige _ to his fledgling project?

To hear Lipke talk, all it took was a letter to Jones' agent and a lot of luck.

"I was thinking I wanted a black person (to narrate), for the reasons you might expect," says Lipke. "Here I am, this white, Jewish honky from New York, talking about a pivotal event. Also, I wanted someone with a broad appeal _ I didn't want to end up preaching to the choir."

In the end, he found all that and more in Jones, who believed in the project enough to work for union scale wages. "The limo that took him to the studio got paid almost as much as he did," says the producer, who recorded Jones' narration in a run-down Manhattan studio. "He might as well have been working for free."

According to Lipke, Jones was also very precise about the words that might be used during the broadcast. "He was concerned that the reading avoid any inflammatory tones _ when to use the word "mob' for instance. He feels it is a very delicate subject and it's important to handle it delicately."

Through a representative, Jones declined to speak with the Times on his role in the show.

As awareness of Rosewood spreads _ in part, due to his documentary, which is now distributed by the Pacifica Radio Network _ Lipke hopes today's generation doesn't lose sight of the lessons that remain an enduring legacy of the massacre.

"I want people to get a sense of the immediacy _ the timelessness _ of this conflict," he says. "This is the kind of conflict that will continue to happen . . . as long as minority communities have specific grievances about prejudice today. If (anybody) really thinks (women and) black people are getting preferential treatment, they should put on a dress, paint themselves black and see what it's like."

At a glance

Rosewood Reborn airs at noon Feb. 27 on WMNF-FM 88.5 and at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 on WUSF-FM 89.7.