History of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre

Mass Racial Violence in a Florida Town

In January 1923, racial tensions ran high in the town of Rosewood, Florida, following accusations that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. Ultimately, it ended in the massacre of numerous black residents, and the town was razed to the ground.

Founding and Settlement

Rosewood Memorial
Memorial marker near Rosewood, FL. Tmbevtfd at English Wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1900s, Rosewood, Florida was a small and predominantly black village on the Gulf Coast near Cedar Key. Founded prior to the Civil War by both black and white settlers, Rosewood drew its name from the stands of cedar trees that populated the area; in fact, timber was the primary industry at the time. There were pencil mills, turpentine factories, and sawmills, all relying on the rich red cedar wood that grew in the region.

By the late 1800s, most of the cedar stands had been decimated and the mills closed, and many of Rosewood’s white residents moved away to the nearby village of Sumner. In 1900, the population was primarily African American. The two villages, Rosewood and Sumner, managed to thrive independently of one another for several years. As was common in the post-Reconstruction era, there were strict segregation laws on the books, and the black community in Rosewood became largely self-sufficient and solidly middle-class, with a school, churches, and several businesses and farms.

Racial Tension Begins to Build

Rosewood Sheriff Bob Walker
Sheriff Bob Walker holds the shotgun used by Sylvester Carrier. Bettmann / Getty Images

During the years following World War I, the Ku Klux Klan gained traction in many rural areas in the south, following a long period of dormancy prior to the war. This was in part a response to industrialization and social reform, and acts of racial violence, including lynchings and beatings, began to appear on a regular basis throughout the Midwest and South.

In Florida, 21 black men were lynched during 1913–1917, and no one was ever prosecuted for the crimes. The governor at the time, Park Trammell, and his follower, Sidney Catts, both vocally criticized the NAACP, and Catts had actually been elected on a platform of white supremacy. Other elected officials in the state relied on their white voter base to keep them in office and had no interest in representing the needs of black residents.

Prior to the Rosewood incident, numerous cases of violence against black people took place. In the town of Ocoee, a race riot took place in 1920 when two black men attempted to go to the polls on Election Day. Two white men were shot, and then a mob moved into a black neighborhood, leaving at least thirty African Americans dead, and two dozen homes burned to the ground. The same year, four black men accused of raping a white woman were pulled from jail and lynched in Macclenny.

Finally, in December 1922, just weeks before the uprising in Rosewood, a black man in Perry was burned at the stake, and two more men were lynched. On New Year’s Eve, the Klan held a rally in Gainesville, burning a cross and holding signs advocating for the protection of white womanhood.

The Riots Begin

Burial Site at Rosewood
Three victims of the Rosewood riot are buried as survivors look on. Bettmann / Getty Images

On January 1, 1923, neighbors heard a 23-year-old white woman in Sumner named Fannie Taylor screaming. When the neighbor ran next door, she found Taylor bruised and hysterical, claiming that a black man had entered her home and hit her in the face, although she did not make any accusations of sexual assault at the time. There was no one in the house when the neighbor arrived, other than Taylor and her baby.

Almost immediately, rumors began to circulate among Sumner’s white residents that Taylor had been raped, and a mob began to form. Historian R. Thomas Dye writes in Rosewood, Florida: The Destruction of an African American Community:


“There is conflicting testimony as to how this rumor originated… one story attributes the rumor to a female friend of Fannie Taylor who overheard black residents discussing the rape when she went to Rosewood to pick up some clean laundry. It is possible that the story was contrived by one of the more militant vigilantes to provoke action. Regardless of their validity, the press reports and rumors provided a catalyst for the attack on [Rosewood].”

County Sheriff Robert Walker rapidly put together a posse and began an investigation. Walker and his newly deputized posse–which rapidly swelled to around 400 white men–learned that a black convict named Jesse Hunter had escaped a nearby chain gang, so they set out to locate him for questioning. During the search, a large group, with the aid of search dogs, soon arrived at the home of Aaron Carrier, whose aunt Sarah was Fannie Taylor’s laundress. Carrier was pulled from the house by the mob, tied to the bumper of a car, and dragged to Sumner, where Walker put him in protective custody.

At the same time, another group of vigilantes attacked Sam Carter, a black foreman from one of the turpentine mills. They tortured Carter until he confessed to helping Hunter escape, and forced him to lead them to a spot in the woods, where he was shot in the face and his mutilated body hung from a tree.

Standoff at the Carrier House

Burning Home in Rosewood
Homes and churches in Rosewood were burned by the mob. Bettmann / Getty Images

On January 4, a mob of twenty to thirty armed men surrounded the house of Aaron Carrier’s aunt, Sarah Carrier, believing the family was hiding the escaped prisoner, Jesse Hunter. The home was filled with people, including many children, who were visiting Sarah for the holidays. Someone in the mob opened fire, and according to Dye:


“Surrounding the house, whites riddled it with rifle and shotgun fire. As adults and children huddled in the upstairs bedroom under a mattress for protection, a shotgun blast killed Sarah Carrier… The shooting continued for over an hour.”

When the gunfire finally ceased, the members of the white mob claimed they had been facing a large group of heavily armed African Americans. However, it is likely that the only black resident with a weapon was Sarah’s son Sylvester Carrier, who killed at least two vigilantes with his shotgun; Sylvester was killed along with his mother in the attack. Four white men were wounded.

The idea that armed black men were present in Florida spread rapidly through white communities all over the south following the standoff, and whites from around the state descended upon Rosewood to join the angry mob. Black churches in the town were burned to the ground, and many residents fled for their lives, seeking refuge in the nearby swampland.

The mob surrounded private homes, splashed them with kerosene, and then set them on fire. As terrified families tried to escape their houses, they were shot. Sheriff Walker, probably realizing things were far beyond his control, requested help from a neighboring county, and men came down from Gainesville by the carload to assist Walker; Governor Cary Hardee put the National Guard on standby, but when Walker insisted he had matters in hand, Hardee opted not to activate troops, and went on a hunting trip instead.

As the killings of black residents continued, including that of Sarah Carrier’s other son, James, some whites in the area began to secretly aid in the evacuation of Rosewood. Two brothers, William and John Bryce, were wealthy men with their own train car; they put several black residents on the train to smuggle them up to Gainesville. Other white citizens, of both Sumner and Rosewood, quietly hid their black neighbors in wagons and cars and got out of town to safety.

On January 7, a group of about 150 white men moved through Rosewood to burn the last few structures that remained. Although newspapers reported the final death toll as six–four blacks and two whites–some people dispute these numbers and believe it was significantly higher. According to surviving eyewitnesses, there were two dozen African Americans killed, and they maintain that the newspapers failed to report the total number of white casualties for fear of angering the white population further.

In February, a grand jury met to investigate the massacre. Eight black survivors and twenty-five white residents testified. The grand jury reported that they could not find enough evidence to hand down a single indictment.

Culture of Silence

Rosewood Ruins
The ruins of Sarah Carrier's home in Rosewood. Bettmann / Getty Images

Following the Rosewood massacre of January 1923, there were further, indirect casualties. Sarah Carrier’s husband Haywood, who had been on a hunting trip when the incident, returned home to find his wife and two sons dead, and his town burned to ashes. He died just a year later, and family members said it was grief that killed him. James Carrier’s widow had been shot during the attack on the family home; she succumbed to her injuries in 1924.

Fannie Taylor moved away with her husband, and was described as having a “nervous disposition” in her later years. Of note, in an interview decades later, Sarah Carrier’s granddaughter Philomena Goins Doctor told an interesting story about Taylor. Goins Doctor said that the day that Taylor claimed to have been attacked, she and Sarah had seen a white man slipping out the back door of the house. It was generally understood among the black community that Taylor had a lover, and that he had beaten her after a quarrel, leading the bruises on her face.

The escaped convict, Jesse Hunter, was never located. General store owner John Wright was repeatedly harassed by white neighbors for assisting survivors, and developed an alcohol abuse problem; he died within a few years and was buried in an unmarked grave.

The survivors who fled Rosewood ended up in towns and cities all over Florida, and nearly all of them escaped with nothing but their lives. They took jobs in mills when they could, or in domestic service. Few of them ever publicly discussed what had happened in Rosewood.

In 1983, a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times wandered into Cedar Key looking for a human interest story. After noticing that the town was almost entirely white, despite having a significant African American population just eight decades before, Gary Moore began asking questions. What he found was a culture of silence, in which everyone knew about the Rosewood massacre, but no one talked about it. Eventually, he was able to interview Arnett Doctor, Philomina Goins Doctor’s son; she was reportedly enraged that her son had spoken with a reporter, who then turned the interview into a huge story. A year later, Moore appeared on 60 Minutes, and eventually wrote a book about Rosewood.

The events that took place in Rosewood have been studied significantly since Moore’s story broke, both in analyses of Florida’s public policy and in psychological contexts. Maxine Jones wrote in The Rosewood Massacre and the Women Who Survived It that:


“The violence had a tremendous psychological impact on everyone who lived in Rosewood. The women and children especially suffered… [Philomena Goins Doctor] shielded [her children] from whites and refused to let her children get too close to them. She instilled in her children her own distrust and fear of whites. Clinical psychologist Carolyn Tucker, who interviewed several of the Rosewood survivors, gave a name to Philomena Goins’ overprotectiveness. Her “hyper-vigilance” as far as her children were concerned and her fear of whites were classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

Legacy

Robie Mortin
Robie Mortin was the last survivor of Rosewood, and died in 2010. Stuart Lutz / Gado / Getty Images

In 1993, Arnett Goins and several other survivors filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida for failure to protect them. Many survivors participated in a media tour to bring attention to the case, and the state’s House of Representatives commissioned a research report from outside sources to see if the case had merit. After nearly a year of investigation and interviews, historians from three of Florida’s universities delivered a 100-page report, with nearly 400 pages of supporting documentation, to the House, entitled Documented History of the Incident which Occurred at Rosewood, Florida in January 1923.

The report was not without its controversy. Moore, the reporter, criticized some obvious errors, and many of these were removed from the final report with no public input. However, in 1994, Florida became the first state to consider legislation that would compensate victims of racial violence. Several Rosewood survivors and their descendants testified at the hearings, and the state legislature passed the Rosewood Compensation Bill, which awarded survivors and their families a $2.1M package. Some four hundred applications from around the world were received from people who claimed to have lived in Rosewood in 1923, or who claimed their ancestors had lived there at the time of the massacre.

In 2004, Florida declared the former site of the town of Rosewood a Florida Heritage Landmark, and a simple marker exists on Highway 24. The last of the massacre’s survivors, Robie Mortin, died in 2010 at age 94. Descendants of the Rosewood families later founded the Rosewood Heritage Foundation, which serves to educate people around the world about the town’s history and destruction.

Additional Resources