A version of the following comments was delivered at the opening of the exhibit An Elegy to Rosewood at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre, when hundreds of whites descended on the nearly all-Black community of Rosewood, Florida, intent on wiping out any trace of the town and its people. On New Year’s Day 1923, a white woman in nearby Sumner had accused a Black man of assaulting her. The hunt for her supposed assailant led a posse of whites to Rosewood. Residents there were apt to defend their homes, and a firefight left several of the white attackers dead. In retaliation, even more, white men poured into Rosewood, intent on its destruction. Most Black residents fled into the surrounding swamp, but those who could not were murdered by the mob, which also set fire to every building in town, save for the home of John Wright, a white man. Those who escaped made their way to the relative safety of Gainesville, but many would be haunted for the rest of their lives by the horror they had witnessed.
It’s important that we talk about what happened at Rosewood and the specific, individual stories of both those who perished and those whose lives were forever changed in January 1923. But we also must recognize that the story of Rosewood is, in many ways, not unique. In recent years the public has come to learn about other similar massacres—in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919; or in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. These are just a few examples of the full-scale attacks on Black communities that were typical in the United States between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the “Red Summer” of 1919 alone, violence of the kind that was perpetrated in Rosewood broke out in dozens of cities across the country. In fact, Rosewood isn’t even unique in the scope of Florida history. Seven years before Rosewood, in 1916, at least six African Americans were lynched in Newberry. Four years later, in 1920, dozens of Black Floridians were killed in Ocoee on Election Night. And less than a month before Rosewood, whites murdered Black residents of Perry, Florida, and burned down Black homes and community institutions.
In many ways, the Rosewood story follows a pattern that we see elsewhere, of a white woman’s accusation against a Black man that escalated into a full-scale assault by a white mob against an entire Black community, sometimes to the point—as happened in Rosewood—that the entire community was murdered or dispersed, and material evidence that it had ever existed was destroyed. The fact that this started with the accusation that a Black man had assaulted a white woman is important because the idea that this kind of violence was necessary to protect white women was central to the story that whites, and especially Southern whites, told themselves and each other about why this kind of violence was both necessary and justified.
We know, of course, that this was a lie. As Ida B. Wells showed three decades before Rosewood, very often, it wasn’t that white women were being threatened by Black predators, it was that the institutions of white supremacy were being threatened by Black people and Black communities that were standing in their power. In Elaine it was Black farmers organizing to get fair wages. In Ocoee, it was Black citizens clawing back the political power they were denied under Jim Crow. In Tulsa, it was Black Oklahomans who had built a community so economically prosperous that it was nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” And throughout the Red Summer, it was Black veterans who were returning from war to make the world safe for democracy and determined to make the United States live up to its own democratic promise.
Rosewood is exceptional in that reparations were actually paid to survivors. This happened in Florida through a bill passed by the legislature in 1994 that granted $150,000 to each of the living survivors. That wasn’t enough, and it was much lower than the survivors had hoped to get, but it was something. And it was made possible because people told the truth about what had happened in Rosewood. On one hand, a team of historians assembled research into a report on the massacre, and on the other hand, a handful of survivors described not only the horrors they had witnessed but how they and their families had been permanently scarred by what they endured.
As in so many of these other stories, the families that were driven out of Rosewood lost everything. They lost their homes, their land, their belongings and family heirlooms, their community, and any sense of security they might have had.
But thinking about the role that historians and historical testimony played in getting some measure of justice for the Rosewood survivors, it’s hard not to also think about the way that lawmakers in Florida and a handful of other states are trying to skew the teaching of history away from any topic that might undermine the idea that we have ever been anything but great. They threaten educators who even come close to challenging this narrow line of thinking when it comes to events like Rosewood.
These attempts to short-circuit discussions are about more than just scoring political points. In a larger sense, recognizing this history makes it clear to us that the way things are is not the way things have to be. The parts of the country that are entirely white aren’t that way just because people “like to be with their own kind,” but because people were driven out of places like Rosewood or because other African Americans saw what had happened there and elsewhere and decided that it just wasn’t safe to be around white people. The suburbs weren’t overwhelmingly white for decades because Black people didn’t want to live in them; it was because there was an entire architecture of policy and practice—including violence—that kept the suburbs that way. And we have a massive racial wealth gap in this country partly because Black people were dispossessed of their property through violence.
Recognizing that the way things are is not the way things have to make the study of history—the true study of history, not the veneration of some glorified past—threatening to people who want to maintain the status quo. Because studying history means seeing the paths not taken and the opportunities foreclosed. It means being able to imagine a present that is better than the one we’re living in. And it makes it possible to imagine and build a more just future.
That’s what it means to learn and teach the history of Rosewood in 2023.permission.