A year ago, I first visited Rosewood, Florida, the site of a horrific racist massacre in 1923. Someone imagined a black man raped a white girl, and it exploded from there. I found the paltry memorialization of this American tragedy to be disquieting. I wrote about my first visit to Rosewood on this blog (click here to read that post, see the pictures, and read the depressingly politicized plaque).
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to return. Rosewood is in Levy County, where Florida State Road 24 meets County Road 324, a few miles east of Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico. This place once buzzed as a miller of cedar for Faber pencils. Now it’s quiet.
My first trip there was too unsatisfying, bereft of the vibration that turmoil usually leaves. I left without a sense of the gravity of what had happened there. If I hadn’t known beforehand, I never would have realized that this dusty, overgrown, fire-prone patch of coastal Florida land had hosted any event of note, let alone one charged with such fury, terror, and bloodlust.
This time, I battled the seasonal swarm of lovebugs to shoot a little video of Rosewood so people can see it for themselves. It appears, on the face of it, to be a dreary, sun-baked little outpost of pickup trucks and scrubby trees. It seems like nothing special as long as you remain ignorant.
But of course, the woods most people zoom past once were once the setting for unimaginable savagery.
There is no way to stop in Rosewood inconspicuously. There is no street life. The sole business, the Clam Shack restaurant, is shuttered. The sole church comes out of hibernation, one presumes, once a week. The Florida Forest Service’s Waccasassa Forestry Center keeps a sleepy eye out for flare-ups. If you get out of your car to shoot video, as I did, it’s impossible to go unnoticed. It’s the kind of place where I expect the sheriff to drive over and ask you where you’re from, and to call me “boy” when he does it.
The brutality that started on New Year’s Day, 1923, persisted for a long time — there had just been a KKK rally in nearby Gainesville — and Rosewood was burned down by a mob a full week after the mayhem began. Gone are the Florida Railroad train station, Masonic hall, and school. The few remaining ashes and bricks are overgrown with vines and trees, and modern-day residents live on land long ago commandeered or repurposed from the black community. The lumber mill where its residents worked was in the white town of Sumner, next door just west — you could walk between them, and everyone did — and that mill burned down four years after the massacre, sending the joint settlement into the anonymous oblivion they occupy today.
Some white locals bragged that as many as 17 people were killed and buried like animals in plow trenches, but only eight deaths can be documented (two of them white men), so that’s the number officials usually go with, which minimizes the scope and viciousness of that week. The historical plaque is also quick to praise the brave whites who tried to quell the massacre and praise the politicians who ordered the plaque — facts that may be true but still make me uncomfortable given how much detail about the victims and the climate of insanity that was left off.
As many commenters on my previous Rosewood post have pointed out, there are many Rosewoods hiding in the trees of America, unremarked and unremembered. We pass desultory intersections like Rosewood’s every day. And we will never know how many of them were once the settings for brutal events, in which Americans, believing they were right and on the side of God, were in fact the instruments of something sinister and evil.
When unspeakable things happen, it’s human nature to simply want to get past them. We move on. In this way, they get forgotten.
No sheriff appeared to call me “boy.” That lived only in my imagination, just like the rest of Rosewood. Imagination is what fanned the furnace of mob action in Rosewood in 1923, too. Things like Rosewood depend on the imagination to exist at all.
Read about the historical plaque and my first visit to the site of Rosewood, Florida.