What started as an accusation from a white woman from the nearby town of Sumner, would become an escalated situation of retaliation and the eventual massacre of an entire community, as well as the complete destruction of Rosewood, an unincorporated black community in Levy County, Florida.
Rosewood was a community built in 1845, nine miles (14 km) east of Cedar Key, near the Gulf of Mexico. Powered by the timber industry, the community was purely black-populated, with the closest communities around it housing white people.
With two pencil mills nearby in Cedar Key, the existence of turpentine and sawmills in Sumner helped support local residents, as did the farming of citrus and cotton.
And with a growth that required further development, a post office as well as a train depot on the Florida Railroad in 1870, were built.
But, even with all these things in place, Rosewood never actually got to be incorporated as a town. That aside, the people continued to live their peaceful and diligent lives until the New Year of 1923 when things would spur out of control. And all it took was a lie.
In January 1923, just around a period of the repeated lynching of black people around Florida, a white woman, Frances “Fannie” Taylor, a 22-year-old married to James, a 30-year-old millwright employed by Cummer & Sons in Sumner accused a black man from the town of Rosewood of beating her and eventually raping her.
From the accounts of what happened, Frances and her husband lived with their two young children and James was mostly at work from early in the mornings. Described as “meticulously clean and scrubbing her cedar floors with bleach so that they shone white,” other women attested that Taylor was aloof; no one knew her very well.
On January 1, 1923, the Taylors’ neighbor reported that she heard a scream while it was still dark, grabbed her revolver and ran next door to find Fannie bruised and beaten, with scuff marks across the white floor. Taylor was screaming that someone needed to get her baby.
According to her, a black man was in her house, who she said came through the back door and assaulted her. The neighbor found the baby, but no one else.
Taylor’s initial report stated that her assailant beat her about the face but did not rape her. Rumors circulated—widely believed to be by the whites in Sumner—that she was both raped and robbed. It would emerge later though that she lied concerning what happened as what did happen was that she was beaten by her lover while her husband was at work.
She decided to pick the more vulnerable black people of Rosewood to lay the blame on them to save herself the embarrassment.
She might not have hoped that it would escalate but upon hearing her lie and noting that in Florida at the time, the charge of rape of a white woman by a black was inflammatory, men from her Sumner community invaded the Black community, lynching a number of them.
The black citizens had to defend themselves and so they did. In their attempt against further attacks, several hundred whites re-organized themselves with many coming in from all over upon hearing the news combing the countryside in a hunt for black people to kill and to set fire into almost every structure in Rosewood.
The blaze lasted for days, dying down on January 8, as the white men continued to pour kerosene on the buildings and churches while shooting anybody in sight or those who attempted to dare stop them. Everything that ever existed in Rosewood was on the ground: in ashes.
It was a complete massacre!
Those who survived, fearing for their lives, hid in the nearby swamps while others sought refuge in the home of John Wright, a local white businessman. They were defenseless and powerless against these rampaging white men but one man would defy the odds.
Sylvester Carrier took up arms and did a brave thing by fighting against the men, killing two whites before he was taken out in that shootout. His bravery was short-lived but it encouraged them.
By the time the mob had dispersed, the town had been almost totally destroyed, with businesses, churches, and homes in ruins or burned to the ground.
Surviving residents fled, with many settling down in nearby Gainesville or moving to cities in the North. Although state and local authorities were aware of the violence, they made no arrests for the massacre in Rosewood.
A grand jury was convened in February 1923, but it found insufficient evidence to prosecute, and no one was charged with the crimes committed against the black residents of Rosewood.
Although the surviving members of Rosewood went away and forgot about the town and all that happened there, in 1982, Gary Moore, a journalist for the St. Petersburg Times, resurrected the history of Rosewood through a series of articles that gained national attention.
At that point, the living survivors of the massacre, most of them in their 80s and 90s, came forward led by Rosewood descendant Arnett Doctor and demanded restitution from Florida.
The action led to the passing of a bill awarding them $2 million and created an educational fund for descendants. The bill also called for an investigation into the matter to clarify the events, which Moore took part in.
Further awareness was created through John Singleton’s 1997 film, Rosewood, which dramatized the events.