Weather plays an important role in human history. Many of the survivors of Rosewood were forced to spend one night or more hiding in the cold swamps while their homes were destroyed. Decades later several of these survivors related how that winter was one of the coldest they could remember. Was it? Daily weather observations from nearby Cedar Key warehoused by the National Climatic Data Center provide the answer.
Actually, the winter of 1923 was the warmest between 1918 and 1923. What does this mean? Used unsympathetically, such data simply contradicts the experiences of the African Americans who hid in the swamps. A more responsible use of such data demonstrates how trauma and violence affect our memory of events. Frightful experiences become more severe, if a night is cold, it feels colder. To be clear, while that winter was warmer, it was still quite cold by local standards.
Weather observations can explain other aspects of the riot as well. While the violence of 1923 began with the murder of Sam Carter on Monday January 1st, hostilities ceased until Thursday. Why? Previous studies struggle to provide an answer. Daily weather observations document 1.5 inches of rainfall on Wednesday January 3rd. Does this explain why violence ceased for two days? 1.5 inches of rain would have turned the dirt roads leading in and out of Rosewood to mud, and made travel difficult.
Is it hard to imagine the effects of this downpour? The whites who attacked Sam Carter would have spent at least one full day indoors, growing more angry of their ‘failure’ to apprehend the black man they (wrongly) believed had attacked a white woman in nearby Sumner on Monday. When violence resumed on Thursday, had the rain amplified their fury? Did it increase their rage? What part did it play in the escalated attacks, culminating in the burning of an entire African American town two days later?
You can download the primary weather observations here: Daily Weather Observations for Cedar Key, 1908-1923.
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