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Rite of peace marks massacre at Rosewood

There are few vestiges of the settlement that vanished when residents had to flee 81 years ago.

By Associated Press
Published January 2, 2004

ROSEWOOD - It's been 81 years since Robie Allenetta Robinson Mortin set foot here, but little is left of the town in which she grew up.

On Jan. 1, 1923, a lynch mob descended on the predominantly black township and hanged her uncle, Samuel Carter. Mortin's father whisked the 8-year-old girl and her sister onto a train that carried many residents to safety as a mob burned Rosewood to the ground.

"We could see the flames from Chiefland," about 25 miles away, Mortin recalled. "Why? Why burn down the houses? The children should have had some place to come home."

Mortin, 89, returned Thursday to gather with more than 100 people at the site of the massacre for a "peace and healing" ceremony organized by Rosewood descendent Lizzie Jenkins.

Jenkins, president of the Real Rosewood Foundation in Archer, said it's the first time survivors and descendents have marked an anniversary together.

"I felt it was time to come back for healing, peace, forgiveness and preservation," she said. "When we preserve Rosewood's history, we preserve America."

What's left of Rosewood is hard to find, nestled among scrub pines and palmetto off State Road 24 about 10 miles east of Cedar Key.

Just one organization, a Baptist church, uses the Rosewood name, and only a small green sign on eastbound S.R. 24 acknowledges the former settlement.

On Thursday at Rosewood Community Park, pastors prayed for forgiveness while descendents lighted candles and released white balloons to honor the victims.

Proclamations and letters from Gov. Jeb Bush and other politicians were read, and participants sang We Shall Overcome.

Records say six blacks and two whites were killed during the massacre, but many descendents suspect as many as 37 died in the attack.

"There were many stories told that there was a mass grave, and I believe it," Mortin said.

In 1993, the Florida Legislature approved a bill giving the survivors and descendents $2.1-million. A scholarship also was created at Florida A&M University to study racial injustice.

A historical marker will be placed on the roadside later this year near the John Wright House, the only remaining Rosewood landmark. Wright was a white merchant who helped hide survivors until others could arrange to get them out of town.

Some other heroes who helped protect Rosewood residents escape were white. They included Levy County Sheriff Bob Walker, who worked 96 hours straight to help as many residents as he could get out of Rosewood alive.

Walker's niece, Phoebe Walker Hughes, started learning about her uncle and Rosewood only when she began researching her lineage five years ago.

"Those things were not talked about," she said.

She rented the 1997 John Singleton movie Rosewood, and she and her daughter were horrified at the story. They tracked Jenkins down on the Internet.

Jenkins' attempts to chronicle Rosewood's history began about 10 years ago. Her aunt, Mahulda Gussie Brown Carrier, was the town's schoolteacher and was determined to keep the stories alive and accurate.

Through her organization, Jenkins plans to build a museum and introduce a scholarship in her aunt's name. She also hopes to return to the site next year with the Rosewood anniversary recognized as a national holiday.

"It's already a holiday," she said.

[Last modified January 2, 2004, 02:01:08]

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