Decades After A White Mob Destroyed Rosewood, The Town Is Rebuilt Online

Dec 6, 2016

In 1923, a white mob stormed the small, prosperous African American community of Rosewood, near Florida’s Gulf Coast. Fueled by racial resentment, the mob terrorized the black residents, before burning the town to the ground. Now an archaeologist is rebuilding Rosewood – online.

A white mob deliberately set fire to the African-American community of Rosewood, Florida.
Credit Florida Memory / https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/34844

Back in 1994, Attorney Martha Barnett represented the Rosewood survivors in their fight for public recognition. Barnett says there is still so much to learn from what happened there.

“We are looking at a global environment today when each of us is having to come to grips with understanding people who are very different than we are. I think there’s a fear of that difference,” Barnett said.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the state of Florida acknowledged responsibility for the Rosewood Massacre, paying $2.1 million to survivors, and establishing a college scholarship for descendants. It was the first time African Americans received compensation for racial injustice, but it took years of struggle. Florida State University History Professor Maxine Jones led the investigation that spurred state recognition. She spoke with WFSU News in 2008.

“The letters to the editor in the newspaper… some claiming that it didn’t happen. Or if it did, that blacks brought it on themselves. You always feel as if your work is undone,” Jones said.

"So as you move through the virtual world you actually have the opportunity to interact with the story, the history."

More than ninety years later, it’s still a struggle to keep Rosewood in the public consciousness. It’s a chapter in the state’s history that many don’t want to remember. And while it’s devastating, it is not an anomaly: according to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1880 and 1940, Florida had the one of the highest rates of lynchings in the country, second only to Mississippi.

In 1923, Rosewood was a tight-knit community of about three hundred people, with a school, three churches and its own baseball team. Turpentine stills and citrus orchards fueled a self-sufficient economy, just nine miles from Cedar Key in North Central Florida. Edward Gonzalez-Tennant, an archaeologist who first studied Rosewood as a PhD student at the University of Florida.

“The black citizens who lived their owned their property, owned businesses and so forth. And that prosperity came to an abrupt and tragic end in the first week of 1923,” Gonzalez-Tennant said.

On New Year’s Day in 1923, a white woman in the nearby town of Sumner accused a black man of assaulting her. The allegation spurred an estimated two hundred whites from throughout the area to descend on the town.

A man surveys the ruins of Rosewood.
Credit Florida Memory / https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/34843

“A weeklong episode of violence, which has become known as the Rosewood Race Riots, took place in Rosewood. And that culminated over that weeklong period, with the systematic destruction and burning of every black owned home and building, and the violent displacement of the area’s African-American population,” Gonzalez-Tennant said.

Some survivors were able to hide in the woods and escape on a passenger train, leaving the town behind. At least eight people were killed in the violence.

Today, most traces of the town are long gone. Apart from a historical marker on the highway, palmettos and pine trees have reclaimed the area.

“Simple things that you would’ve anticipated seeing in a community like this in the 1920s: large cleared areas, gardens, orange groves, the railroad, all of these things are gone. And the physical traces of them, seeing them on the landscape today is next to impossible,” Gonzalez-Tennant said.

A rendering of one of the homes included in the Virtual Rosewood Community.
Credit Edward Gonzalez-Tennant / http://www.gonzaleztennant.net/

But now the town will survive online. Inspired by immersive, narrative-driven video games, Gonzalez-Tennant has recreated all two square miles of Rosewood, after pouring over old property deeds and census records. When the design updates are complete, visitors will be able to walk through Rosewood virtually, listening to oral histories of the survivors and their families.

“So as you move through the virtual world you actually have the opportunity to interact with the story, the history, and in some ways the narrative of not just what took place in 1923, but what led up to that successful community, and what happened in the years and decades after the community was destroyed,” Gonzalez-Tennant.

There is only one remaining survivor of Rosewood, 96 year old Mary Hall Daniels, who was three when a while mob destroyed her town. The massacre that happened there is still in living memory, separated from today by just a few generation. Gonzalez-Tennant hopes the project will keep the community in the public memory, connect with a new generation, and give Floridians a better understanding of the state’s racial history. The virtual world of Rosewood is scheduled to be finished in 2017.