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Published Jul. 6, 2006

The story of Rosewood used to be confined to a few scattered sitting rooms and dining room tables, something mentioned only after the dishes and children had been cleared away.

But that was before Arnett Doctor _ whose mother watched as her grandmother was shot and killed in the 1923 massacre _ helped a newspaper reporter rediscover Rosewood 15 years ago.

Three years ago, Doctor worked to convince the state to pay damages to the Rosewood family _ the survivors of the massacre and their descendants.

"Point blank, no question about it, it wouldn't have happened without him," said Steve Hanlon, the lawyer who argued for the Rosewood claims bill in the Legislature.

Doctor was a primary source for a book about Rosewood last year, and was a consultant for the Warner Bros. film being released nationally today.

He has positioned himself as the voice of the massacre's victims, and in doing so, he is the most visible, and possibly the most important character in the second part of the Rosewood story: its rise from family legend to recognized Florida history.

A man obsessed

The man who has been so single-minded about Rosewood "like the Rosewood story itself, is layered and complex," said Mike D'Orso, author of a book on the 1923 massacre, Like Judgment Day. "There is nothing simple about him."

Doctor has been a youth civil rights leader, a U.S. Army combat veteran, a convicted felon and, according to some of the Rosewood family, an acquisitive snake.

He is 54 and fit-looking, with short hair and a beard. He lives alone in Spring Hill, in Hernando County, in a house that is scrupulously neat, as is he. Even his sweatshirts look crisp.

His obsession with Rosewood is revealed in his surroundings: the "RSE WOOD" license tag on his Saturn, the Rosewood movie poster on the wall, the copy of the 1994 state claims bill.

The stories about the massacre _ the most minute details of it and dozens of names _ flow out of him.

"My Aunt Beauty said it is a wise head that carries a still tongue," he said, after one exhausting spurt of conversation. "And I'm sitting here running off at the mouth right now."

A mother's legacy

Of all the things Doctor is, he is one thing especially: the son of big, domineering Philomena Doctor. She set the course of his life by telling him about the massacre, the first time on Christmas morning when he was 5.

" "I have something to share with you all,' " Doctor said his mother told him." You are not like any person that you know. Your family built churches and schools. They had hogs and cows and huge vegetable gardens. All the land in the town where I was from was owned by black people.' "

On that and future Christmases _ always a mournful time in the Doctor home because it roughly marked the anniversary of the tragedy _ Doctor's mother shared parts of the basic story of Rosewood.

It was a relatively prosperous logging town of about 200 African-Americans in western Levy County. Early on New Year's morning of 1923, a white woman in a nearby town named Fannie Taylor claimed a black man had robbed and beaten her. The mob first went after a man they thought was covering for the suspect _ hanging him, shooting him and cutting away his fingers and ears for souvenirs.

Three days later, they laid siege to the home of Doctor's great-grandmother, Sarah Carrier. Before the evening was over, she and her son, Sylvester, as well as two white men, had been shot to death.

The next day, the mob, flush with reinforcements from surrounding towns, moved in to loot the black-owned homes of Rosewood and set them on fire. Historians have been able to confirm that eight people were killed, six of them black.

Doctor believes the mob actually slaughtered far more Rosewood residents. He thinks Fannie Taylor was beaten by her white lover, not a black man. Sylvester Carrier was not killed, Doctor said, but escaped to Louisiana, sending occasional postcards to his family until his death in 1964.

This is what stuck with Doctor: that he came from people with books, a piano, china and land; that a mob of white men had robbed them of all of it; and that because of this, according to his mother, he was to never " "ever, ever trust a white person,' " Doctor said.

A story to tell

The characters, especially Sylvester Carrier, stayed with Doctor.

"Sylvester was the only black man who actually defended the black town of Rosewood," Doctor said. "He was like a one-man army."

Here was someone to emulate. But it was hard for Doctor to avenge Rosewood when his mother, afraid all of her life of white retaliation, smacked him whenever she heard him talk about it.

So he did what he could do. After he and his mother moved to St. Petersburg in the late 1950s, Doctor became president of the youth council of the NAACP. As a student at the old Gibbs Junior College, he led pickets all over the city.

"There was a lot of opposition from the power structure . . . And Arnett stood up against it," said said Robert W. Saunders Sr., former NAACP state field secretary. "I'm not surprised at the role he played in Rosewood."

Standing up for many

Doctor never became a lawyer as he had hoped. Instead, at a time when most white students found a way out of military service, Doctor was drafted, which made him furious. But in his 12 years in the service, he found the Army treated him equally, and he learned to trust a white-run institution for the first time.

"I loved the Army with a passion," he said.

He left because his wife, Thelma, pressured him to. In the end, he left her, too. After six years of almost constant arguing, she accused him of waving a gun at her in July 1976. He was convicted of aggravated assault and served three years in prison.

When he got out, he was still determined to right the wrong of Rosewood, but as an ex-con who had not quite finished his bachelor's degree, he couldn't figure out how to do it.

Then, in 1982, he was approached by a Times reporter, Gary Moore. Moore's story, and one 60 Minutes broadcast the following year, made little lasting impression on the public.

But Rosewood remained with Doctor, who went there to see the bare ground where his ancestors' homes had stood and identified some of their headstones in the graveyard.

Doctor had other jobs _ he owned a cleaning company until diabetes and other health problems forced him to retire six years ago _ but Rosewood was his life's work from the early '80s on.

He collected property records and passed them out at the 1988 Rosewood family reunion. He called lawyers and tried to interest them in some sort of lawsuit over the massacre. He visited relatives all over Florida, bringing them fish he had caught and talking family history.

As soon as he read a newspaper story about Hanlon's effort to get money from the state on behalf of survivors, he volunteered to help.

His contribution, as chairman of the Rosewood Family Advisory Committee, was to encourage survivors to tell their stories, to lobby legislators and, especially, to talk to reporters.

After two years of work, the state agreed to pay, mostly to eight survivors, $2.1-million. The amount still insults Doctor, but he considers it a historic victory because the state admitted its inaction contributed to the massacre.

"I was a natural choice of the family," Doctor said of his contribution. "One thing for sure: There was no one else that would take the time, that would put forth the effort that Arnett Doctor did. Not one of them can deny that."

Another side

A sizable faction of the Rosewood family says Doctor took too much credit for the passage of the claims bill, and, more recently, has cut them out of movie money.

Some family members are also leery about Doctor's role as movie consultant, in which the Rosewood family trusted him to make sure the film was accurate.

They have reason to be, said D'Orso, after seeing the movie last week.

It is powerful and artful, he said, as well as "violent, inflammatory and racially divisive."

The most inspiring aspect of Rosewood, D'Orso said, is that African-Americans got satisfaction by working through the same government that had failed them during the massacre, he said.

In the movie, the community is avenged by the fictional "Mann," a character D'Orso compares variously to Shane, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

"It's a fantasy."

Telling the truth

Doctor insists that money is not his motivation.

"Rosewood is not about money; Rosewood is about addressing wrongs that needed to be exposed," Doctor said.

On this point the entire Rosewood family agrees.

"The truth is light," said Eva Jenkins, 87, who grew up in Rosewood but was in Gainesville at the time of the attack. "The truth needs to be told."

Doctor says his mother was still an angry woman when she died in 1991. So he is pleased that he has seen things she could never have imagined:

The claims bill; a book and movie telling the country the same story she told him 50 years ago; and Doctor making white friends.

In November, the Rosewood Justice Center Inc. was formed to encourage better racial understanding, with Doctor as executive director. He plans to build its headquarters in Rosewood.

Doctor said he was probably happier five years ago, when he had time to fish, and he was still friendly with everyone in his family.

But, he said, "I'd do it again. I'd do it in a heartbeat."

Staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this story.