Brief Introduction to the 1923 Rosewood Riot
Rosewood was settled in the mid-nineteenth century by a diverse group of people, and experienced rapid economic growth following the Civil War. This was, in turn, followed by negative population and economic growth during the 1890s. By the early twentieth century, Rosewood's population was majority African American. By the 1910's, the neighboring community of Sumner began economically eclipseing Rosewood following the construction of a large sawmill complex approximately one mile west of Rosewood.
Then, on New Year’s Day 1923, a white woman in Sumner fabricated a black assailant to hide her extramarital affair with a white man, who had badly beaten her on New Year's Day morning. A white mob formed and headed for Rosewood, first encountering the home and blacksmith shop of Sam Carter, a long-time black resident of Rosewood. They initially interrogated Carter by hanging him from a tree by the neck, and when it seemed the mob might release him, a man leveled his gun at Carter’s face, and New Year’s Day ended with the murder of Sam Carter..
At first, it seemed that the violence might end with Carter’s lynching. However, a little over two days later, whites in Sumner heard rumors that the fabricated black assailant had returned to Rosewood with a local resident, Sylvester Carrier. Carrier’s distrust of whites was well-known and before the night was out, at least two whites lay dead on his doorstep after attempting to set fire to his house, with his family still inside. Rumor and hatred spread quickly through rural Florida, eventually reaching the Klu Klux Klan in Gainesville, only forty miles away. Residents of Rosewood knew the response for killing whites would be swift and violent, black men armed themselves and headed into the woods, women and children hid with one of Rosewood’s white residents John Wright to wait out the violence. However, by the sixth of January three other blacks had been brutally murdered and the white mob, now numbering in the hundreds, began the systematic burning of Rosewood. During this time a train was brought through town at four in the morning to pick up women and children, who had moved to the swamps and spent the previous nights hiding after John Wright was unable to guarantee their safety. The train took dozens of families to towns like Otter Creek, Archer, and Gainesville’s black district where descendants live to this day.
Residents of Rosewood, those who survived long enough, would have to wait for more than seven decades to receive any trace of justice. While a grand jury convened in January 1923, no convictions were made and the jury’s records have been lost. Rosewood lingered at the edges of collective memory for decades, alternatively represented as a black utopia, a half-whispered secret among local whites, and even as a Ghost Town. Then, in a 1994 landmark decision, the State of Florida decided to pay compensation to survivors and descendants. The story of Rosewood speaks to a range of larger issues and has much to offer concerning questions about extralegal violence, communal trauma, and America’s (un)willingness to discuss the darker aspects of our collective past.
For a more detailed history, please see the "Documented History of the Incident which Occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923" submitted by a group of historians to the Florida State Legislature in December, 1993.
continue to next section: Contextualizing the 1923 Rosewood Race Riot