81 years later, Rosewood memorialized


Robie Mortin, right, was 8 years old when her family fled from Rosewood in 1923, a day before the predominantly black town was demolished by an angry white mob. Martin and Rosewood descendant Janie Black, left, were among those honored Thursday during a ceremony near the site where the town stood.

KAREN VOYLES/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 12:42 a.m.

ROSEWOOD - The first memorial service was held Thursday for those who died or had their lives irretrievably altered by the horrific racial incident that began on Jan. 1, 1923.

This week's peace and healing ceremony was planned by descendants of black families who lived in Rosewood before the town was decimated by an angry white mob.

"This is the dawn of a new day for Rosewood," the Rev. Avon Witherspoon said in her invocation.

She reminded the crowd of more than 100 that gathered at the community ballpark south of the original town site that the purpose of the ceremony was to "bring peace, healing and restoration."

The ceremony was described by organizer Lizzie Jenkins of Archer as a tribute to the ancestors who once lived in the town and worked at the nearby turpentine mill or for white families who lived in the area. She told the crowd that the ceremony was important because "preserving Rosewood's history is preserving America's history."

The history of the atrocities at Rosewood was documented by the 1994 Florida Legislature, which paid out $2 million in compensation to survivors and the descendants.

The violence began after a white woman accused a black man of raping her. The accusation - which was never proven - set off the violence that did not end until several black residents had been murdered and the nearly 50-year-old town was burned to the ground, with the exception of one home that remains standing today.

Within hours of the woman's accusation and the onset of the violence, surviving residents fled into the surrounding woods, taking nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Efforts to get the governor or president involved in calming the situation were ignored and it was left up to the Levy County sheriff and a handful of other local white men to help arrange to get the black residents out of the area. Many were picked up by a train and taken to other family members in other parts of the state.

Robie Mortin, now 89 years old, was just 8 when her father whisked her and an older sister out of town at the first indication of trouble.

"I never did think I would live to see a day like this," Mortin said Thursday as she participated in the service. "My dad got us out on a train the day before most of the others got out and we were all the way to Chiefland before we heard about the hanging."

White men, convinced that Rosewood blacksmith Sam Carter had helped a rapist escape, tortured Carter, then shot him, hanged him and butchered his remains, according to the history documented by the Legislature.

Those who could escape into the surrounding swamps did so, some waiting in freezing water until they could be summoned to a train that hauled them to safety. The torching of the homes left only one standing, which can be seen today alongside State Road 24.

For decades, Rosewood atrocities were only whispered about. Much of what had happened there was documented by oral family histories that began being publicized in the early 1980s.

Robert Thompson, a 72-year-old black man and lifelong residents of nearby Chiefland, said he had heard the stories all his life, and was at the ceremony Thursday to listen to others.

"We are here to respect the ones that died and all of them that lived through it," Thompson said.

Jenkins said her goal is to one day have a monument erected in the Rosewood area so that no one ever forgets what happened there.

Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@ gvillesun.com.

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