A white mob wiped this all-black Florida town off the map. 60 years later their story was finally told

Ruins of Rosewood, Florida. The small town was almost forgotten after a white mob murdered and displaced black residents in 1923.
(Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

 

Nine-year-old Minnie Lee Langley was outside with her mother on New Year’s Day 1923 when she saw them coming: a mob of white men marching toward her hometown of Rosewood, Florida. A daughter of the Jim Crow South, where violence against black people was part of everyday life, Minnie knew that all those white men together meant terrible trouble.

“We was out there in the front yard and them crackers were just coming down the railroad just as far as you can see, some of them,” she recalled in a radio documentary in the 1990s. “Just as far as you could look, you could see them in those big white hats and on horseback.”

Even by the standards of the 1920s South, the chain of events that followed was unfathomable. Over the course of a week, Minnie Lee’s small town would be wiped off the map, with the families who lived there so terrified to speak of what happened that the town was almost wiped from history, too.

Rosewood was a relatively well-off, nearly all-black town a few miles from Florida’s Gulf Coast, with an African Methodist Episcopal church, a Masonic lodge that doubled as a schoolhouse, and two general stores. Most of the people who lived there were domestics for white families in nearby Sumner, or worked in that town’s sawmill. The white mob had been summoned after the screams of Sumner resident Frannie Taylor brought neighbors running to her door on the morning of January 1. Taylor had been beaten, her face visibly bruised, and she claimed her attacker was black. Eyewitness accounts from her domestic workers told a different story; they said she was struck during an argument with the white lover she was seeing while her husband was at work. Nevertheless, the group of whites, numbering in the hundreds according to white witness and Sumner resident Edith Foster, were deputized by the county sheriff. They’d followed a bloodhound’s nose two miles to Rosewood and Minnie Lee’s family’s front yard, where they grabbed Aaron Carrier, Minnie’s uncle, and started looking for rope to tie him up with. “Mama just went to crying and all that, saying ‘Don’t kill him ’cause he don’t know nothing about this,’” Langley recalled. The sheriff intervened and took Carrier to a nearby jail for his own safety; it was the only time that white authorities would help black residents of Rosewood.

(left) Sarah Carrier (sitting), Sylvester Carrier (standing) and his sister Willie Carrier, circa 1910. (Wikimedia) | (right) Sheriff Robert Walker holds a shotgun reportedly used by Sylvester Carrier to kill his family’s attackers. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

 

A few hours later, the mob dropped the pretense of lawfulness, and grabbed Rosewood resident Sam Carter, who was African American. They accused him of knowing and hiding Taylor’s assailant, strung him up in a tree, and tortured him before murdering him, taking body parts as souvenirs.

The next target was another of Minnie Lee’s uncles, Sylvester Carrier, who gathered the extended family at the home he shared with his mother, Sarah Carrier. Sylvester’s house was two stories tall, with glass windows. He stocked up on ammunition, hid his nieces and nephews in the upstairs bedroom, and took up watch. “He considered himself the protector of the family, which he had a right to,” recalled white Sumner resident Earnest Parham, who was 17 at the time of the massacre.

On January 4, the mob returned and surrounded Sylvester’s house. From upstairs, Minnie Lee heard the mob calling her great-aunt: “Sarah. Sarah. Sarah. Come on out here now.” Sarah refused to leave. Minnie Lee crept downstairs, looking for comfort from a grown-up. Sylvester grabbed her just before a member of the mob kicked down the front door, and sheltered her behind the firewood bin as he took aim and shot the intruder, then fired at the man who rushing in behind him.

A firefight followed, but, afraid to approach the house and running short on ammunition, the mob disbanded. Thirteen of the women and children left the home and ran for the swampy woods. “Three days and three nights we stay out there in the woods, in that cold,” Minnie Lee recalled. “We didn’t have no clothes.”

The bodies of Sylvester and Sarah were found the next day, January 5, when the mob returned to torch their house and the town church. They burned the home of Lexie Gordon, who couldn’t run because she was sick with typhoid. When she dragged herself out of the fire into her backyard, she was shot and killed.

Then the mob came across James Carrier, Minnie Lee’s grandfather, and made him dig his own grave before they shot him.

By January 7, eight people — six black and two white — had been confirmed dead. By the time the destruction ended, the town had been all but razed.

 White residents of Sumner bury their black neighbors, two per grave.
(Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

 

Some white people refused to simply stand by and watch. John Wright, who owned the general store, was one of the few whites who still lived in Rosewood in 1923. He did what he could to save his black neighbors by sheltering women and children in his home and searching for the survivors crouched in the woods. The owner of the sawmill in Sumner sheltered his Rosewood workers until the rampage ended, instructed his white employees not to participate in the mob, and sent guards to protect Sumner’s black residents.

Wright is credited with arranging for a train to stop in Rosewood at 4 a.m. on January 6, and guiding women and children onboard. They took refuge in Gainesville, Jacksonville, and other nearby towns and eventually reunited with the men in their families, sometimes after months-long searches.

Few others helped, despite national publicity about what was, at the time, called the “Rosewood riots.” Those who failed to act included the governor of Florida; in fact, he offered to help the county sheriff, who declined assistance. Reassured that the matter had been well handled, the governor headed out for a lazy round of golf.

Rosewood, meanwhile, was left in ruins, and today it’s all but impossible to tell it was once a town.

It took 60 years for the refugees to return to Rosewood. Their visit was initiated by a Florida journalist, Gary Moore, who’d stumbled on the story of the massacre; his 1983 article in the St. Petersburg Times drew national attention. 60 Minutes followed up with a story that same year, and reunited Minnie Lee, by then a frail woman in her seventies, with a few fellow survivors on the site of the former town.

Standing in a field of tall grasses, broken up only by the occasional tree and the remains of fences, Minnie Lee seemed overwhelmed.

Yet she kept telling her story. In 1994, she testified before the Florida legislature, lending her support to a bill that noted the state’s failure to protect Rosewood residents and requested compensation for the survivors. The bill passed. Minnie Lee, who had spent her life making brooms in a factory and retired without a pension, was awarded $150,000. She died a year later at age 82.

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