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Nowhere to be found

(ran TP edition)

There is nothing to see in Rosewood.

The Clam Shack is closed. A stack of firewood sits outside the roadside restaurant, and dusk collects on a concrete picnic table. The office at the Odyssey Campground is empty too. The sign on the door says, "Come In," but the tables inside are bare. The manager has gone out to pick pine cones.

No marker or monument, nor even a road sign, tells what happened in this town on State Road 24 in Levy County.

The town has left the telling of its history to journalists, authors and filmmakers. Michael D'Orso has told Rosewood's history in a 373-page book, Rosewood: Like Judgment Day, which, according to its publisher, is in its eighth printing and has sold more than 28,000 copies. Director John Singleton has told the story too, in Rosewood, which grossed $9.8-million in its first three weeks in national release.

Singleton's film brings to life the cracker houses and pine trees that populated this Central Florida town before a white mob razed it on New Year's Day 1923. It shows the burning, the lynching and the destruction of an entire town of black residents. It depicts the killing of innocents such as Sarah Carrier, a maid who was shot on her porch; she is played in the film by Ester Rolle.

After watching the film, you feel compelled to go there. You feel drawn to this town near Gainesville, to understand what happened here, just as you might visit Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' house in Cross Creek, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s gravesite in Atlanta, or any other historic site.

There is nothing to see in Rosewood.

The drive from Tampa takes 2 hours and 45 minutes. U.S. 19 stays crowded with cars, even on a Saturday. Beyond Crystal River, traffic thins out. Green stretches for miles against the curtain of a blue sky. Yellow wildflowers, not quite in bloom, stand in stalks as tall as three feet in the median.

At Otter Creek, State Road 24 veers west under a canopy of trees. There are deer crossing signs and an Adopt-A-Highway post. Palmetto bushes with green palms and yellow fingers hug the roadside.

Rosewood rushes by in a blur.

A white concrete house on the town's south end has a sign that reads, "Executive Suite." It is abandoned. A couch rests on the portico, as if waiting for its occupant to return. Across the street, an airstrip lies barren. A sign from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement warns against trespassing. Ant piles sit like pyramids in knee-high grass.

There is evidence of life. The Odyssey Campground advertises hot showers, a picnic area, RV storage, and boat storage for $10 a day. A forest ranger calls down from a fire tower perched 80 feet in the air. About 200 people live in trailers among the woods, residents say, though only one or two homes can be seen from the road. Few people wander outside.

On an unpaved road off the highway, a pick-up truck leaves a cloud of white dust in its path. There is a "Slow: Children at Play" sign. Wells and propane tanks sit by trailers. Nearly all the mobile homes have satellite dishes beside them.

There is an odd matrix of street signs _ SW 96 Court, SW 67 Street, SW 100th Court _ that map out a grid for a town that does not exist. A developer, Nature Coast Reality, plans to sell lots. A billboard for "Sumner Place," with 5- and 10-acre homesites, points down SW 98th Terrace. Dirt roads run into the wood. A cat suns itself at the end of a cul-de-sac. Bullet holes riddle a street sign.

On County Road 345, a mile from the intersection of State Road 24, a cross commemorates a fatal car wreck. "Matthew Wyaais. Feb 27 1995."

A Victorian house with a trimmed yard, and purple and pink azaleas, languishes on Rosewood's north end. It was John Wright's house. Wright was among the only white residents in Rosewood when the massacre occurred, and he hid some black residents in his home.

Today, the house is one of the few without old cars sitting in the front yard. No marker identifies the house's historical claim. Doyal Scoggins, 65, lives there with his wife.

"There are still several people every day that stop out by the road and take pictures," Scoggins said.

The interest from outsiders seems to perplex the town.

Marvin Harrington, 48, a cabinet maker with a shop off State Road 24, scratched his head when asked about the absence of a memorial. About 30 miles away in Gulf Hammock, a road-side exhibit and placard celebrates the role of the railroad in the history of Levy County.

But in Rosewood, "this is it," Harrington said, looking around. "There is nothing here to see."

At the Odyssey Campground, the manager waves you off.

"Oh, that movie _ it got it all wrong," she said. "Those were the people from Cedar Key that did that."

She and others tell those who stop to continue on to Cedar Key, a coastal town 9 miles south. Frommer's '97 travel guide, which does not mention Rosewood, describes Cedar Key as "a paradise for those looking for Old Florida ambience."

It is a tourist town. Weekend cottages post "No Vacancy" signs. Sightseers wander around downtown, and anglers line bridges. The Cedar Key Historic Society Museum is located at the first stop sign into town.

Inside, there are exhibits on seashells, sponges and fossils. There are pamphlets about Historic Cedar Key and Levy County. A laminated article from the Gainesville Sun bears a headline, "Help Restore the Andrews House." Glass bottles sit on shelves by a sign that explains, "Bottles Help Tell the Story of Life in Cedar Key."

There is nothing to see about Rosewood.

Asked about the absence, Connie Crane, a silver-haired volunteer with bifocals, says the museum keeps some articles about the massacre stored away.

"I would have to dig them out of the file," she said. "Let me see if I can find them."

Minutes later, she returns. She does not know where the articles are.

Museum curator Liz Lewis said Rosewood is "a little bit out of our geographic area." The white men who burned Rosewood mainly came from Sumner, just up the road, Lewis said.

"I haven't seen the movie," she said. "That would (take) a trip to Gainesville."

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Spring Hill resident Arnett Doctor, whose mother was a girl in Rosewood, wants to build a memorial and educational center in the town. He has begun to raise money, said Steve Hanlon, a lawyer with Holland & Knight who has worked with Rosewood descendants.

Still, there is nothing concrete to report yet.

It is strange. In the hamlet where the presence of what happened should be felt strongest, it seems felt least. And that, perhaps, is reason alone to visit.

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