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Florida’s Rosewood Massacre: 100 years later, the story continues

In 1923, a white mob destroyed a thriving Black enclave. Reparations were won more than 70 years later. Now, in 2023, descendants look toward the future.
In 2004, then-Florida State Rep. Ed Jennings, left, hugs Rosewood survivor Robie Mortin after the unveiling of a monument to a Black community destroyed in an act of racial violence in 1923.
In 2004, then-Florida State Rep. Ed Jennings, left, hugs Rosewood survivor Robie Mortin after the unveiling of a monument to a Black community destroyed in an act of racial violence in 1923. [ DOUG FINGER | AP ]
Published Jan. 4|Updated Jan. 4

The New Year always came with a heaviness — for the first 19 years of his life, Gregory Doctor didn’t know why.

As the weather chilled and the year’s calendar crept to a close, his family would gather at their home in Lacoochee in Pasco County with relatives who lived nearby. While other households celebrated new beginnings with fireworks and sparkling wine, the elder women in Doctor’s family — his great-aunt, his grandma — huddled indoors.

Once the children had shuffled outside to play, the women would whisper. They cried.

This was the early 1970s, and Doctor knew not to ask why. But he had a child’s intuition. He could feel the seeds of trauma like they were sewn into his DNA. To a certain extent, they were.

Clarity came in 1982, in the form of a St. Petersburg Times article. The headline read, “Rosewood Massacre.”

The words cut through decades of darkness.

Doctor’s family’s story — and the story of others like his — shone bright in the light for the very first time.

• • •

The story of Rosewood is not a happy one.

It’s one of racial violence — of a thriving Black community in Levy County that was burned to the ground by a white mob 100 years ago, during the first week of January in 1923.

St. Petersburg Times reporter Gary Moore started reporting on the Rosewood Massacre in early 1982. His story was published in the Floridian section of the Times on July 25, 1982.
St. Petersburg Times reporter Gary Moore started reporting on the Rosewood Massacre in early 1982. His story was published in the Floridian section of the Times on July 25, 1982.

Like other instances of terrorism that plagued the 20th century — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, in Perry, Florida, in 1922, and thousands of lynchings across the South — the violence began when a white woman from a neighboring town accused a Black man of assault.

A manhunt ensued. A mob grew in size. Rosewood residents fled and tried to survive.

Some hid in a nearby swamp, others took refuge in the house of a local store owner and his wife — the only white people living in the town of about 300 — who sheltered neighbors against the attack.

By the end of the week, at least eight were dead, though eyewitnesses said the true number was much higher. The town was wiped from the map.

Land and possessions were destroyed. Community was lost and fear was baked into the residents’ psyches.

Survivors scattered to cities across Florida and beyond.

The John Wright house, pictured in 2018, is the only remaining house from Rosewood. Some hope that it will become a museum.
The John Wright house, pictured in 2018, is the only remaining house from Rosewood. Some hope that it will become a museum.
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Related: The last house in Rosewood

Many, like Doctor’s family, landed in Pasco County.

For years, they stayed silent. Some changed their names. They were victims, but also witnesses to unprosecuted murders, unsure if they were living among their perpetrators. Their safety — they thought — hinged on silence.

But when a reporter went digging, people started to talk, reviving the memory of the battered town and opening new paths for justice.

Rosewood’s story wasn’t finished.

• • •

Stephen Hanlon thought he had landed the best job in the world when he was hired by the Holland & Knight law firm in 1989 as its designated “Pro Bono” partner.

His assignment: take on tough cases that otherwise would go untried, using the resources furnished by a big corporate law practice.

It was the early 1990s when the name Rosewood landed on his desk.

In the eight years since the story of the massacre had been unearthed by the Times, survivors and descendants had been reconnecting and organizing.

Now, the story of Rosewood was talked about in living rooms. It aired on national television.

Families — like Gregory Doctor’s — began to lay bare their histories. The missing puzzle pieces that answered “why” came into focus.

Why weren’t the children allowed to be outside after dark?

Why did certain family members never leave the house?

Why did the women cry around New Year’s?

The Times’ story resurrected a call for justice. The survivors and descendants wanted reparations and for the state to acknowledge what had happened.

Seventy years after the massacre they got that when Hanlon and the plaintiffs brought the case before the Florida Legislature in 1993.

They won.

It was the first case in which a state has paid reparations to Black people for racial violence. It’s the only case with such an outcome, still, to this day.

“The money was very important to the descendants,” Hanlon said. “But when I talked to the survivors, it was clear to me that the money meant nothing to them. They wanted their story told and they wanted their history told.”

Arnett Doctor, a descendant of survivors of the Rosewood attacks, helped win $2.1 million in reparations. A portion of that money was used to create a scholarship fund, which has helped more than 300 descendants attend college.
Arnett Doctor, a descendant of survivors of the Rosewood attacks, helped win $2.1 million in reparations. A portion of that money was used to create a scholarship fund, which has helped more than 300 descendants attend college.
Related: Arnett Doctor, driving force behind Rosewood reparations, dies at 72

Hanlon said the case made clear how racial violence brings a toll that can haunt generations. When Rosewood was destroyed, it wasn’t just lives that were lost. Well-off Black families lost acres of land and homes that they would have passed down to their children. Many were pushed into poverty after leaving the town with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing as the fled.

One of the driving forces in bringing that truth to light was Gregory Doctor’s cousin, Arnett. He’s remembered as the “Moses of the family.”

“He was the one who created the narrative, who gathered the facts and said those facts entitle us to reparation,” Hanlon remembered of Arnett Doctor following his death in 2015.

• • •

One-hundred years after the massacre — and with all survivors now deceased — the memory of Rosewood and the imprint of its history remain.

Gregory Doctor is moved to tears when he talks about it, inherited pain bubbling when he tells the story.

Gregory Doctor, a descendant of survivors of the Rosewood Massacre, helped organize a weeklong remembrance at the University of Florida. The event is free and open to the public.
Gregory Doctor, a descendant of survivors of the Rosewood Massacre, helped organize a weeklong remembrance at the University of Florida. The event is free and open to the public. [ Courtesy of Chasity Edwards ]

Others, like 84-year-old Lizzie Jenkins, whose aunt was a Rosewood survivor, take interviews from bed.

Reliving the terror of her ancestors is exhausting, she said, but she has dedicated her life to making sure people don’t forget what happened.

“It’s been a journey and my legs are tired,” Jenkins said. “But we have to tell this story so it’s never repeated.”

Over the course of the next week, a series of events will commemorate Rosewood’s centennial.

On Saturday, Jenkins’ organization — The Real Rosewood Foundation, Inc. — will hold a wreath-laying ceremony at Bo Diddley Plaza in Gainesville.

Lizzie Robinson Jenkins.
Lizzie Robinson Jenkins. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Related: The last house in Rosewood may become museum

Another remembrance is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday in Rosewood. That ceremony will kick off a week of conversation and panel discussions for the Remembering Rosewood Centennial, hosted in Gainesville at the University of Florida.

The weeklong event, which Doctor helped organize, will bring together major speakers from around the state and country for conversations about Rosewood’s place in history and what can be extracted from its memory. The event is free and open to the public. Among those scheduled to speak are Walter Johnson, a Harvard history professor, and Kidada Williams, an author and African American studies professor.

Florida State University history professor Maxine Jones, who helped draft a report on Rosewood for the state Legislature that was a critical document in the fight for reparations, will also speak.

Jones said the story of Rosewood is important, not just because of the injustices that took place, but because of how it can provide context for the present.

“It brings new understanding to why there’s still tension between marginalized people and the majority in this country. There were hundreds of Rosewoods, thousands of instances of racial terror,” Jones said. “The fear, the distrust. I understand it, and I think if we acknowledge that these things happened, we can start to heal.”

• • •

How to attend

What: Remembering Rosewood Centennial Commemoration

Where: The University of Florida in Gainesville

When: Jan. 8-14

How to register: rememberingrosewood.com/events

An additional wreath-laying ceremony will be held by The Real Rosewood Foundation, Inc. from 4 to 7 p.m. Jan. 7 at Bo Diddley Plaza in Gainesville. For more information, visit rosewoodflorida.com/events/rosewood-centennial.