What racial mob razed, survivors wish to uplift 2 black women in Fla. recall New Year in '23, when town was torched off

January 02, 1993|By Lori Rozsa | Lori Rozsa,Knight-Ridder News Service

ROSEWOOD, Fla. -- The secret, sinful past of Rosewood is locked up tight in John Rutledge's house. Preserved carefully in a box, he keeps his unpublished chronicle, "Rape at Rosewood," safely away from errant eyes.

He wrote it to be read. That was 30 years ago. Now he says to publish it would be too painful for the families of the men he wrote about. Those men, with the help of the Ku Klux Klan, burned the small black town of Rosewood to the ground in 1923 in one of Florida's most vicious racial assaults. Survivors say the attackers killed dozens of men and women in a rampage that began on New Year's Day.

"They committed murder," said Mr. Rutledge, a retired Levy County school principal. "And their families still live here, and there's still a lot of prejudice here. I don't think it would do any good."

The survivors of Rosewood disagree. The years have whittled that sad list to two. Lee Ruth Davis, 77, of Miami and her cousin, Minnie Lee Langley, 88, of Jacksonville, believe they are the only people left who witnessed the violent chaos.

Now they want the story told. More than that, they want Florida to own up to its history, acknowledge the atrocity and do something to right a 70-year-old wrong.

"We had all our property there, and they took everything they didn't burn. They took our chickens and anything else we had in Rosewood," Ms. Langley recalls. "They even took it off the map."

With the help of Miami's Holland and Knight law firm, Ms. Langley and Ms. Davis will ask the state Legislature early this year to take special steps to reimburse them for the property loss and to memorialize the massacre. They want Rosewood back on every map and prominently placed in history books.

"This part of the state's history has been swept under the carpet," said Manuel Dobrinsky, one of the attorneys helping Ms. Langley and Ms. Davis. "It's something that needs to be recognized."

The draft proposal of the bill Mr. Dobrinsky wants the Legislature to consider reads like a tragic and lurid screenplay:

"As the manhunt grew, so did the mob's fury. People came from all around to take part in the manhunt. They were people with a thirst for blood. The remaining survivors of Rosewood . . . are still tortured with the lingering image of a parent or grandparent being lynched or shot; of the family home being burned to the ground; of crawling through the woods in the dead of night and hiding from an armed and crazy mob; of being hated and attacked for nothing more than their color."

About all that's left of Rosewood now is a 6-inch-by-14-inch steel sign, white letters on a green background, planted on the north side of state Road 24. The two-lane highway stretches from Gainesville southwest to the Gulf of Mexico, ending at Cedar Key. The town is still on some maps, represented by a tiny black dot, spelled out in letters much smaller than Cedar Key.

Cedar Key is a small fishing village that in the past few years has gentrified itself into a tourist destination. Its ramshackle charm attracts visitors looking for Old Florida but with the modern amenities, such as restaurants and air conditioning.

As visitors hurry down the highway to their vacation on the island, they pass by what's left of the ugly side of Old Florida.

A two-story, white clapboard house on the south side of the road was the only building left standing after the fires of the Rosewood riot finally went out.

Doyal Scoggins lives in that quaint house now. It was built by John Wright, who ran a general store out of his home. He was the only white person to live in Rosewood. That's why it was spared when the Klan galloped through with torches on Jan. 1, 1923.

"When I moved here a few years ago I took a Florida history course at the community college, hoping to learn more about what happened here," Mr. Scoggins said. "The instructor didn't know a thing about it."

Seven decades ago, Florida -- especially northern Florida -- was as much a part of the Deep South as Mississippi or Alabama. The racism and violence that typified much of the South were present here as well.

"Florida had the highest lynching rate per capita in the United States prior to World War I," notes David Colburn, a history professor at the University of Florida. "A lot of it had to do with the transition taking place in Florida. People were moving in; blacks were demanding rights and equality for themselves."

But Mr. Colburn doesn't know much about Rosewood. Not many people do. Only a handful of newspaper accounts of the attack can be found. And those accounts don't always agree -- one lists the dead at seven, another at 21. Mr. Dobrinsky's law firm puts the number as high as 100, based on interviews and other newspaper clippings.

In his 11-volume work, "A History of the South," historian George Tindall catalogs the racist assaults of the early 20th century.

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