LEVY COUNTY, Fla. – In the 1920s, Rosewood, Florida, was a thriving, predominantly Black town in rural Levy County, about an hour southwest of Gainesville.
A century later, a historical marker, a single home and a small road sign are all that remain.
And that historical marker doesn’t tell a pretty story. It carries the ugly truth that on Jan. 1, 1923 -- exactly 100 years ago Sunday -- an angry, racist mob invaded and destroyed the town of Rosewood after a white woman falsely accused a Black man of assaulting her.
Lizzie Jenkins, a niece of a Rosewood survivor, launched the “Real Rosewood Foundation” in 2003. Her mission is to preserve the town’s history, before and after the tragedy.
“Working people, everybody worked,” Jenkins said. “Everybody got along, they helped each other. And it was a beautiful town.”
For Jenkins, Rosewood is more than a forgotten town. It makes up the fabric of her family’s history. Starting with her aunt, Mahulda Gussie Brown Carrier, the town’s schoolteacher. Mahulda’s husband was Aaron Carrier, whom she married in 1917. Their simple, picture-perfect life changed in an instant.
“Jan. 1, 1923, when Fannie Taylor, who was a resident of Sumner, accused my uncle of assaulting her,” Jenkins said. “However, her lover, or the man who attacked her or bruised her, was a white man.”
Within hours, that accusation ignited an angry mob from a neighboring town. It invaded and attacked Rosewood, destroying it and running citizens out of town over the course of several days.
“Burned it to the ground,” Jenkins said. “And there were approximately five Blacks killed.”
Jenkins’ aunt and uncle narrowly survived the attack. As the chaos ensued, John Wright, a white merchant, sheltered survivors inside his home.
“They stayed there for a couple of nights, gave them food, took care of them for two nights,” Jenkins said. “Until the train that was owned by the Bryce brothers from Bryceville was able to rescue them.”
The Wright house was untouched and is the only house still standing today. Even years later, Jenkins remembers her aunt living in unspeakable fear, even changing her name and moving more than a dozen times. One story from Jenkins’ childhood about her aunt is still fresh in her memory. She said, at the time, the family lived on a dead-end street.
“She heard a car, a truck,” she remembers. “She jumped up from the sewing machine and ran to the room, which left me, a little girl, baffled. ‘What happened?!’ Watching her movement and her facial expression, I knew something was wrong.”
Jenkins then remembers her mother going to check.
“I remember these words today, ‘The coast is clear,’” she remembers her mother telling her aunt. “I had no idea what that meant until my mother said it.”
In the years after the massacre, survivors largely stayed silent. Many people, even those born and raised in Florida, had no idea this happened. In 1997, Warner Brothers released a film entitled “Rosewood” based on the massacre. It was directed by John Singleton and starred Jon Voight and Don Cheadle.
Jenkins said the John Wright House was sold to new owners in the last couple of years. She said, they, in turn, donated it to the “Real Rosewood Foundation.” Jenkins said one of her goals is to relocate the home to Archer, a town in Alachua County. She said that’s where her mother and her aunt grew up. Donations are being accepted for the Wright House relocation project.
Until then, Jenkins continues her life’s work, fulfilling a promise she made to her mother, whom she affectionately calls her “commander-in-chief.”
“She told me what to do, what I needed to do,” Jenkins said. “Her sister was attacked also. She said, ‘You must keep my sister’s history alive.’ That’s a hard job.”
In the early 1990s, the Florida Legislature passed a law that eventually compensated victims and established a scholarship.
In the last couple of years, former Rep. Ted Yoho introduced a bill before Congress calling for a special study of the Rosewood site, known as “The Rosewood Study Act.” In the text, Yoho wrote: “Violence and prejudice have no place in our society. Our society cannot be complacent in senseless acts of violence. In order to learn from history, our society must make sure to remember it.”
To mark 100 years since the Rosewood tragedy, the foundation will host an event on Jan. 7. To learn more, click here: Rosewood Forever — Real Rosewood Foundation, Inc. (rosewoodflorida.com).
Jenkins believes remembering this history and passing it on to future generations is crucial.
“Good, bad or ugly, we are history, and we are the history makers,” Jenkins said. “When I say ‘we,’ I’m talking about everybody. It’s our history, and we need to appreciate it. And appreciate the people that contribute so much. Until then, things are not going to change.”
To learn more about Rosewood’s history, or to donate to the John Wright House relocation project, visit: Real Rosewood Foundation, Inc. (rosewoodflorida.com).