Teacher tells of Rosewood history
The dictionary defines Rosewood as a type of dark wood streaked with red and black, but for many people now, especially with the recent movie by John Singleton, Rosewood is a prime example of the overt racism and injustice so entrenched in this "land of the free and home of the brave."
It was on January 1st, 1923, that a mob of white people descended on the small, thriving, primarily black town of Rosewood (population about 300; located between Archer and Cedar Key, just west of Gainesville) and burned it down, all over a false accusation of rape by a white woman against a black man.
On March 26, Archer resident Liz Jenkins spoke at the Civic Media Center about her lifelong memories of Rosewood. She may have been born 20 years after the attack, but she has grown up with its legacy by way of her family. Her aunt wasa prominent member of the Rosewood community in 1923 as a 29-year-old schoolteacher, and Ms. Jenkins' mother was 21 at that time. Both held strong memories of those days, and while her aunt tended to internalize them, manifesting them through a distrust and fear of strange cars appearing on the property, her mother chose to openly share her memories with her four children. Of them, Liz, the youngest, was the one who became fascinated with them. Today she is consumed enough to be working on a book which will bring together all the saved letters, photos, documents, and press clippings, as well as the first hand knowledge from her aunt, mother and others. This book, she hopes, can be made into a documentary film which will tell the real story of Rosewood and become a teaching tool used in schools to preserve the story for future generations. Ms. Jenkins herself is a retired school teacher, having taught for 31 years in Alachua County.
The story of Rosewood has its beginnings in 1870, when what was a small village had an influx of blacks from South Carolina who brought with them much skill and enterprise. Rosewood became a thriving hub of economic activity which enriched and helped develop the other small communities in the area. This all fell apart December 31, 1922, when a member of one of the only white families in Rosewood falsely claimed a black man had assaulted her. According to Liz Jenkins, locals pretty well knew her accusation was false, but it nonetheless set off a mob action by whites who saw a way to vent their racist indignation at this thriving black community. At the end of the burning, the single building left standing was white-owned, and the 300 or so residents of Rosewood had dispersed and lost any way to assert their rights to their land. At least five blacks and two whites were killed. The event was ignored history until the 80's. Rosewood and the former residents' claims for damages against the state of Florida developed beginning in 1982.
In her talk at the CMC (which was recorded on audio tape and is in the collection for checkout to members) Jenkins spent a good bit of time on the historical inaccuracies of John Singleton's movie version. But, despite them, she feels it's a good thing that the movie was made. "It's one of the best things that could have happened," she says, "because it got the message out that it did happen."
The most obvious historical inaccuracy which gets mentioned commonly is the creation of an outsider, Mann, who plays a principle role in rescuing people during the massacre. This covers up the townspeoples' own heroics. Another is the misrepresentation of Sheriff Bob Walker, a bad guy in the film, but in reality a decent man caught in a very hard position, who actually assisted many black people in escaping the mob, including Jenkins' own aunt. One of the most interesting historical points was the standoff at Sylvester Carriers' house, which in the movie showed the white mob coming up to this house at night and attacking the dozen or so blacks inside, who returned fire. According to Jenkins there were a lot more than the dozen or so depicted in the house, and they were organized and well armed. When the gunfight began, a lot more whites were shot than the movie or recorded history states. Perhaps white historians have not wanted to give credit to the resistance the black population showed.
For Jenkins, the lesson of Rosewood is that we need to talk, need to own up to history and move toward understanding and better communication. When asked if it's a bygone issue, Jenkins immediately pointed to the Susan Smith case, and to Chuck Stewart in Boston, both recent cases where blacks were falsely accused of crimes, and where the police and media were only too quick to swallow the bait. "How do I feel?" Jenkins said. "I'm so tired of it."
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