On anniversary of Rosewood attack, it’s sad to see DeSantis embrace FL’s Old South legacy

By: - January 4, 2023 1:46 pm
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Screenshot: KXAN News, courtesy of the Florida Phoenix.

It began in the usual way: A white woman (her name was Frances Taylor) accused a Black man of beating her. That was on New Year’s Day, 1923. It ended in the usual way, with violence, lynching, and destruction.

That Jan. 2, a mob of white men drove to Rosewood, a mostly Black turpentine village in Levy County, looking for Jesse Hunter, an escapee from a chain gang. The white community had decided he was the perpetrator, even though Frances Taylor never identified or named him.

The mob didn’t catch Hunter, but they tortured local blacksmith Sam Carter until he confessed he’d hidden Hunter. They shot Sam Carter dead and hanged him from a tree as an “example.”

In the evening on Jan. 4, white vigilantes from Cedar Key, Sumner, and Bronson, and some Klansmen from Alachua County, went back to Rosewood, surrounding the home of Sarah Carrier. Friends and family, including children, hid from the gunmen in cupboards and under mattresses. As the gang of terrorists began shooting, some of the children managed to escape out the back door, running into the swamp.

At least one woman was gang-raped. One man was forced to dig his own grave before the white men executed him and dumped him in it. Sarah Carrier was shot dead. She had been a laundress working for Frances Taylor and, before she died, she told relatives she had seen a white man leaving Frances Taylor’s house in the morning on New Year’s Day. Seems Mrs. Taylor had a lover.

By Jan. 5, 30 to 40 Black men, women, and children had been killed and the town burned to the ground.

The white newspapers at the time called it a “race riot.” It wasn’t a riot. It was collective punishment. It was a massacre. And no one was ever prosecuted for it.

A century on, many Floridians have never heard of Rosewood. Most of them came from somewhere else. They move here to escape history, to pretend that the burdens of America’s past don’t apply in this warm, beachy place. For them, Florida exists in an eternal sunny present, a pastel world of leisure and indulgence, troubled only by the occasional hurricane.

Memorial week

But a group of prominent Floridians are coming together next week to make sure we don’t forget. The University of Florida will host a week-long commemoration of Rosewood between Jan. 8 and Jan. 14 in Gainesville, sponsored by the Holland & Knight law firm and the Southern Poverty Law Center, among others.

Participants will include descendants of those children who survived the killings; Tallahassee attorney Ben Crump, who has represented the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, who will speak about the ongoing struggle for racial justice; FSU historian Maxine Jones, who helped research a report on Rosewood for the Legislature in the 1990s, and Martha Barnett, former president of the American Bar Association and the first woman lawyer hired by Holland & Knight.

Barnett grew up in Lacoochee, a small town in Pasco County where some of the Rosewood survivors fled. Her father, the town doctor, delivered Rosewood descendants’ babies. She spent years advocating tirelessly (and finally successfully) for Rosewood reparations.

To paraphrase Toni Morrison, Rosewood is a story that must be passed on, especially now. In Florida the past isn’t dead; and it isn’t gone; and this state still harbors people who hate Jews, LGBTQ folks, and Black people.

Hotspot for white supremacists

More than 10 percent of those arrested in connection with the attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021, were from Florida, the highest number of any state: Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other white supremacist types.

Antisemitism and racism are on the rise in Florida. Hate groups grow like kudzu here. Some idiot flew a Confederate battle flag over a Jacksonville Jaguars game in December. Demonstrators from white supremacist groups stood outside Disneyworld in April and May 2022 holding banners that included swastikas, a Confederate battle flag with the lightning runes of the SS superimposed on it, and a “DeSantis Country” flag.

Neo-Nazis rallied in Orlando and again outside at a conservative student meeting in Tampa, waving swastikas and signs urging Florida to re-elect DeSantis.

The governor was slow to condemn his fascist supporters. He always is. He deplored the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 but couldn’t bring himself to call it an insurrection and blamed the media for criticizing Trump and his cult followers.

DeSantis is too smart to alienate a substantial chunk of his voters.

Many of us had hope for DeSantis when he got elected in 2018. One of his first acts as governor was to pardon the Groveland Four. In 1947, a young white Lake County woman accused four Black boys, Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee, and Walter Irvin, of raping her. They were innocent. In 2021 they were officially exonerated.

In 2020, he signed a bill mandating that Florida schools teach lessons about the Ocoee Massacre of 1920. July Perry, a leading Black businessman and organizer in Orange County, was lynched and scores of people killed by white supremacists when they tried to exercise their right to vote.

But given DeSantis’ new dictates on how educators should approach the history of systemic racism (they’re not even supposed to utter the phrase “systemic racism”) it’s unclear how or whether Florida students will learn about Ocoee or Andrew Jackson’s murderous raids on Seminole villages he suspected of harboring runaway slaves or the 1964 Klan violence in St. Augustine or, indeed, what happened in Rosewood in 1923.

The crimes committed in that little town 100 years ago had one unambiguously positive outcome:

Florida paid reparations.

Not that anyone called it “reparations:” That term was as politically poisonous in 1994 as it is now. The Legislature took up a bill to compensate Rosewood survivors. One North Florida senator — a Democrat — accused lawyers of trying to “shock us into voting for this measure,” and demanded, “How long do we have to pay for the sins of our forefathers?”

As if white America had ever paid for slavery; as if we’ve ever recompensed those whose lives were destroyed by racism.

Old South legacy

Martha Barnett and fellow lawyer Steve Hanlon lobbied every Florida legislator and won the key backing of Republican Rep. Miguel de Grandy and Democratic Rep. Al Lawson. Gov. Lawton Chiles signed the Rosewood victim compensation bill on May 4, 1994, establishing a scholarship fund for descendants of survivors and money for families.

Rosewood advocates had asked for more than $7 million; they got $2.1 million. Florida is, after all, a former Confederate state, no matter how many people from Up North move here.

It’s sad to see Ron DeSantis embrace our Old South legacy rather than trying to lead us to a more inclusive New South future. Instead of demanding equal treatment under the law, he’s harking back to Jim Crow with his absurd “election police.” Of the 19 people arrested for supposed voter fraud in 2022, 15 were Black.

Instead of going after the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, and the out-and-proud racists proliferating in the Sunshine State, state agencies are investigating “A Drag Queen Christmas” in Fort Lauderdale. Never mind that the show came with an “adult content” disclaimer and the requirement that anyone under 18 had to be accompanied by an adult, men dressed as women is a bigger threat to Florida than, say, automatic weapons.

Still, it’s the new year. Let’s be hopeful for five minutes. Maybe Ron DeSantis, who used to be a lawyer with Holland & Knight, will decide to show up at the Rosewood event. Maybe he will learn some important Florida history.

Maybe he will choose to be a governor for all of us, not just angry, scared white people.

Veteran journalist Diane Roberts is a contributing columnist for the Florida Phoenix, which first published this essay.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is a columnist for the Florida Phoenix. She has been writing for news outlets since 1983 and her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.