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UF and descendants mark 100th anniversary of the Rosewood massacre

Used with permission

This month marks the 100-year anniversary of an act of racial violence so severe it would cause Florida to become the first state in the nation to enact a form of reparations for Black victims. Over a number of days in 1923, residents of Rosewood--a city in Levy County--fled their homes in terror as a white mob razed the town, effectively wiping it off the map. At the time the massacre generated nationwide coverage. But for decades Rosewood victims remained silent and their story disappeared until the early 1980s. In 1993, the Florida legislature commissioned a report on the Rosewood slaying which formed the basis of a claims bill to compensate victims. Today the descendants of Rosewood families have reclaimed their ancestors’ stories and are using them to connect past to present in a politically and racially-charged climate.

“I was always brought up in the presence of Rosewood. I always knew about it as a child, we went to the reunions every year, and that’s led me to be politically inclined, as well,” said Raghan Pickett, a student at Florida A&M University who is a beneficiary of the state scholarship designated for the descendants of Rosewood families.

Pickett was born in 2002, and grew up knowing the stories of what happened during that first week of January in 1923. Her family passed them down through generations and attend a reunion with other Rosewood families each year.

“To understand how my family navigated that generational trauma, it enabled us to be extremely close. My mother, my grandmother, we’ve never missed a reunion. That fear of losing your family, losing everything you once had…one of our number one values is to keep our family first and that has a lot to do with what our ancestors had to undergo in Rosewood,” said Pickett.

Jonathan Berry Blocker was in adulthood before he came across the story of Rosewood. The massacre began after a white woman claimed a Black man assaulted her. A mob gathered in response and turned on the Black residents of the town. Official records state eight people were killed, but oral historians imply the death toll was far higher.

For Blocker, a law professor at the University of Florida who practices civil rights law, the introduction to his family history came through the 1997 movie Rosewood, which chronicled the massacre. Blocker was still in college at the time and says his father warned him not to bring up Rosewood with his grandfather, a survivor who refused to talk about it.

“It’s a weird arresting of interest, of curiosity,” said Blocker, “because once an elder has told you do not cross this line… you don’t do it. I’m almost 40 now, and I am just now starting to peel back the layers and understand. So I think for us, it’s being comfortable discussing what happened to us, and being vigilant that it doesn’t happen again.”

Gregory Doctor also grew up in the dark about what happened during that frigid week in early January of 1923 when Rosewood families were terrorized and run out of their homes by a white mob. As a child, the story wasn’t spoken verbally, but he says he knew something was amiss, especially around Christmas.

“I always knew during the Christmas holidays, especially after the first of the year, that my grandmother…was very depressed. I would always ask my mother why. And she said, ‘you’re not old enough to understand.’”

Doctor didn’t learn Rosewood’s history and his family ties to it until 1982 -- around the time when his cousin, Arnette Doctor, started speaking publicly about it.

“For 70 years, they kept this embedded inside of them,” Doctor said of his grandmother, a survivor. “And I am very sure it affected them in many aspects of their lives, in terms of PTSD.”

Arnette Doctor was one of the original Rosewood descendants who helped seek, and eventually win a claims bill from the legislature which set up the scholarship program for descendants like Pickett, the FAMU student. But that work didn’t happen without help from many people determined to preserve the Rosewood story. Among them-- attorneys with the powerful firm Holland and Knight—who spearheaded the legal effort. Holland and Knight Attorney Martha Barnett helped win the settlement with the state back in 1994. Barnett’s father was a physician who treated some of the survivors and even delivered their children, including Gregory Doctor.

“Martha Barnett’s father is on my birth certificate, and pretty much most my family members’, and on death certificates as well so I know Martha very well, and her family members and her niece,” he said.

Others worked hard, too. Journalists, like Gary Moore of the St. Petersburg Times who unearthed the story and reported it in 1983. Historian Maxine Jones, a Florida State University professor who was the main author and investigator for the legislature’s report on Rosewood.

The University of Florida is hosting a weeks’ worth of events starting Monday to mark the 100th anniversary of Rosewood.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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