Eastside students touched by Rosewood
Published: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 2:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 2:58 p.m.
On State Road 24, about 55 miles west of Gainesville, a blue metal sign rising out of an asphalt swale at the roadside marks the historical site of Rosewood.
Blink and you’ll miss it.
But last Wednesday, 20 Eastside High School juniors stepped off the beaten path in Rosewood to get a living history lesson on the racial violence that destroyed the town in 1923.
They were led by Marvin Dunn, a retired professor at Florida International University in Miami and a forefront historian on racial violence in Florida.
He took the group of AP U.S. history students into the woods, onto a 5.69-acre patch of land that he owns along with a friend, James Cornett.
It is the first piece of land to be owned by a black person since Rosewood burned down 90 years ago, Dunn said.
“There are a lot of folks who don’t want us out here,” he told the students at the first stop off the highway, where they peered across privately owned property at the raised strip of land where a railroad used to run.
Rosewood residents have tried to suppress the area’s violent history, he said. They don’t want it to define them.
Beginning on New Year’s Day 1923, the small, predominantly black town was terrorized by a group of white men who raided Rosewood looking for a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.
By Jan. 7, at least eight people were dead, and the town of Rosewood had been burned to the ground. Survivors escaped to surrounding towns, including Gainesville, or fled south to West Palm Beach, which was considered safer.
Though it was one of the largest and worst flare-ups of racial violence in Florida, the culture of silence in the area prevented the details from becoming common knowledge, historians say.
Monica Graham, 17, said she didn’t know the history of the Rosewood Massacre until she started studying it in David Jones’ history class this year.
She said the trip out to Levy County helped her see how close to home the violence occurred, how much has changed in nearly a century.
“It’s not just something that you’re reading in a book,” she said. “You can drive from your area and see how people have experienced (the violence.)”
Jones, the history teacher who coordinated the outing with Dunn, said he, too, had driven past Rosewood dozens of times without really knowing the stories.
As the group followed the old railroad track deeper into the woods, Dunn recounted a few of those stories, including some that he’d learned from Robie Mortin, a Rosewood survivor who was 8 years old at the time Rosewood burned.
The group paused at the edge of Dunn’s property, where barbed wire still tangles with the bushes, the last remaining piece of the old railroad.
“This many black people have not been back here since that night,” Dunn surmised to the group of mostly African-American students. He then advised them not to return on their own.
Dunn asked the students what they were feeling at that point on the hike.
Some said they felt sad, or angry, or that the experience made them grateful for the lives they lead.
“You feel honored that you get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come back to a place that has some historical significance,” said Geremy Kendrick, 17.
The group climbed down the bank to a flatter area, where Dunn had the students clear a path from the road to the old railroad tracks.
The action was symbolic, he said. The weeds will grow back to shoulder height in a month.
“But they touched the ground,” he said. “They touched the earth here.”
The last stop, further down the railroad tracks, was the former site of the Masonic Lodge, which also served as school, meeting place and cultural center of Rosewood.
It also burned down in 1923.
There, the group looked for artifacts.
In the course of his research, Dunn has found items such as kitchenware, glass bottles, eyeglasses and other personal effects. Last Wednesday, the students found a few pieces of charred pottery.
They stepped into the sunshine with the blackened fragments, turning the artifacts over in their hands like found treasures.
It’s important to keep studying this, Dunn said. Florida’s history is fraught with racial violence, but the story of Rosewood is particularly compelling.
“It’s one of those historical events that won’t let you go,” he said.
Erin Jester is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.