Brief Introduction to the 1923 Rosewood Riot
Rosewood was settled in the mid-nineteenth century and experienced rapid economic growth following the Civil War. By the early twentieth century, Rosewood’s population was majority African American. During the 1910’s the neighboring community of Sumner began economically eclipsing Rosewood after the construction of a large sawmill complex approximately one mile west of Rosewood.
Oral history accounts suggest that on New Year’s Day 1923 a white woman in Sumner fabricated a black assailant to hide her extramarital affair. While some current Levy County residents dispute this, we do know that a white mob quickly formed and headed for Rosewood. They came upon the home of Sam Carter, a long-time black resident of Rosewood. They interrogated Carter by hanging him from a tree by the neck, and when he was unable to satisfactorily answer their questions, he was shot to death and his bullet-riddled body left on the road to be discovered the next morning.
A little over two days later, whites in Sumner heard rumors that the assailant might have returned to Rosewood with local resident Sylvester Carrier. Carrier’s distrust of whites was well-known and before the night was out two whites lay dead on his doorstep after attempting to set fire to his family’s home. Rumor and hatred spread quickly through rural Florida, eventually reaching the Klu Klux Klan in Gainesville. Residents of Rosewood knew the response for killing whites would be swift and violent, black men armed themselves while women and children hid with one of Rosewood’s few white residents, John Wright. 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 after John Wright was unable to guarantee their safety. The train took dozens of families to nearby towns where descendants live to this day.
Residents of Rosewood, those who survived long enough, would have to wait more than seven decades to see justice. While a grand jury convened in February 1923, no convictions were made and the records have been lost. Rosewood lingered at the edges of memory for decades until the town’s tragic history was uncovered in the 1980s by journalist Gary Moore. This was followed by a 1994 decision by the State of Florida to pay compensation to survivors and descendants. The story of Rosewood speaks to a range of issues and has much to teach us about racial violence, communal trauma, and the need to openly discuss the painful chapters of our collective past.