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A low point in Florida History: The Rosewood massacre

The state marker is the only sign of the area’s historical significance. Blink as you cruise past open fields along this stretch of State Road 24 approaching remote Cedar Key, and you just might miss it.

What now passes as idyllic, open-road scenery was once the scene of a racial attack on a small town, an attack that later came to be known as the Rosewood Massacre.

Until January 1923, the village of Rosewood was a quiet, self-sufficient, racially segregated, community of about 200 Black residents in rural Levy County.

The town got its name from the reddish color of the cedar wood that was once cut and processed there and consisted of over a dozen two-story wooden plank homes, three churches, a school, a Masonic Hall, two mills, two stores and a baseball team — the Rosewood Stars.

All that changed when word spread throughout the county that a White woman had been assaulted by a Black drifter. What came next was swift and deadly.

A mob of several hundred Whites combed the countryside, hunting Black people and torching the village, prompting residents to flee and hide in nearby swamps for days. At least six Black residents and two others were killed, although eyewitness accounts suggest the death toll was much higher.

Shamed and scared, the survivors, their descendants and the perpetrators stayed silent about the massacre for years. 

By the end of the week, at least eight were dead, though eyewitnesses said the true number was much higher, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The town was wiped from the map.

Later investigations suggested the rape victim was delusional, or that she had been assaulted by a White lover and made up the story to hide the affair from her husband, according to a story written by Florida author Craig Pittman for Smithsonian Magazine.

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The deliberate burning of an African American home in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923, torched during the attack on residents. (Florida State Archives)
florida black history rosewood massacre marker doug lyons
The author in Rosewood. (Photo by Doris T. Harrell)
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Reverse side of Rosewood historical marker. (Photo by Doris T. Harrell)

The story of Rosewood resurfaced in the early 1980s as journalists became interested in the massacre. The revived attention prompted a group of survivors and their descendants to sue the state for failing to protect Rosewood.

In 1993, the Florida Legislature commissioned a study, which led to the state ultimately compensating the survivors for damages from the riot. In 2004, the state designated the site of Rosewood as a Florida Heritage Landmark.

If there is any historic destination that could be done in a drive-by, this is it. The historical marker is pretty much it, at least for now but maybe not for long.

According to this account by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Black psychologist named Martin Dunn has been acquiring property in what was once Rosewood and is attempting to acquire relics of the era in cooperation of surrounding White landowners.

Dunn has written several books on Rosewood and Black history.

“There is an importance in owning what I call the blood land, the land where these things happened, for the sake of keeping history alive,” Dunn told the SPLC. “The best way to remember these experiences is to go to where the blood was shed.”

The Rosewood story was dramatized in a 1997 movie of the same name starring Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Esther Rolle and Jon Voight. | View the trailer. | The movie is available to rent ($2.99) or purchase ($9.99) on Amazon Prime Video. (Esther Rolle is a native of Pompano Beach, Florida.)

Related stories:

Discover Florida’s Black history

End of the world: Pack the RV for Cedar Key

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