Rosewood, Florida: The Destruction of an African American Community

Article excerpt

A violent racial disturbance took place in Rosewood, Florida during the first week of January 1923 that destroyed the community. Two white men and several blacks were killed and there was extensive property damage. This episode created headline stories in Florida papers and the national--especially black--press. Yet interest declined, and soon the incident faded into obscurity, disappearing even as a footnote. Interest was renewed in 1982 as the result of the work of Gary Moore, an investigative reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, and a decision by the descendants and surviving residents of Rosewood to publicly tell their story. The Florida legislature took up the Rosewood incident in 1994 and passed a bill to compensate the Rosewood victims for loss of property as a result of the state's failure to prosecute the parties responsible. The Rosewood bill was the nation's first compensation bill for African Americans who had suffered from past racial injustices. The act was based, in part, on the results of a study by a team of historians commissioned by the Florida House to provide an objective account of the incident. The author of this article was one of the participating historians.(1)

In examining racial violence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scholars have attributed such incidents to a variety of factors, including political instability, sexual fear, religious fundamentalism, class conflict, economic competition, and hot weather. Such a multitude of explanations and theories makes it difficult to assign a primary reason to specific instances of racial violence. In most cases local events, concerns, and conditions determined the course of such events. The Rosewood incident provides an example of a fully functional and economically viable black community that was destroyed as a result of white anger.(2)

During the World War I era and immediately after, racial tensions and violence increased significantly as black Americans challenged the segregation customs of southern society and many others moved north to escape the racial oppression of the region. Wartime industrial development encouraged blacks to move north, but as black migration increased, so too did northern white fears, resistance, and discrimination. No longer confined to the region south of the Mason Dixon line, racial violence became a national epidemic. Thirty-nine blacks and nine whites lost their lives in the East Saint Louis Riot of 1917. African Americans who had served in the armed forces during World War I expected to be welcomed home and granted full-fledged citizenship, but they were soon disillusioned by rampant local violence and the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. By 1924, the KKK claimed over 4.5 million members throughout the nation. Racial violence continued to spread throughout the country. In 1919, 15 whites and 23 blacks died in a Chicago riot, and in September of that year, 700 federal troops were called upon to quell rioting in Omaha. In the South, lynchings became so frequent that they no longer constituted front-page news.(3)

Florida followed the national trend. On 5 October 1920, four blacks were taken from a jail in McClenny and lynched. In November 1920, the black community in Ocoee was burned out. At least six blacks were killed and the community virtually destroyed in a dispute over black voting rights in local elections. In February 1921, a black man in Wauchula was accused of rape, taken from the city jail, and hanged from a telephone pole. A few weeks before the events in Rosewood, a black man was burned alive at the stake in Perry, two others murdered, and a local black church, school, and meeting hall burned following the murder of a white schoolteacher. As the nation experienced a resurgence of racial tensions, it was not unusual for a black man accused of improper behavior toward whites--especially white females--to become the victim of lynch mobs. Almost every Florida town, including the state capital, witnessed these atrocities. …