The Gruesome True Story Of The Rosewood Massacre: The Violent Race Riot In Jim Crow Florida

Published May 1, 2019
Updated May 8, 2019

On New Year's Day, 1923, a violent race riot ravaged an entire town in Florida. The Rosewood Massacre would spell the end for the small town as its residents fled never to return.

Rosewood Massacre Damage

Getty ImagesView of the damage left over after the Race Riots in Rosewood, Florida. Jan. 9, 1923.

The racially-motivated attack, known as the gruesome Rosewood Massacre, occurred in a small predominantly African-American town in Florida in 1923. The town burned to the ground during the seven-day riot in which all the residents fled. Among the dead were at least six black people and two white people, however, eyewitness accounts place that number much higher – by some estimates as high as 150.

The story of what happened in Rosewood remained largely hidden until 1982 when a journalist for the St. Petersburg Times interviewed survivors and went on to publish a series of articles that gained national attention. As a result, the Florida Legislature commissioned an investigation into his 1993 report and the state became the first to compensate survivors and their descendants for damages they incurred as the result of racial violence.

A House Burns In Rosewood Florida

Getty ImagesA house on fire in Rosewood, Florida. Jan. 9, 1923.

Leading Up To The Rosewood Massacre

Racial violence was common in the United States at the time of the massacre. There were both individual incidents of outlaw actions such as lynchings as well as attacks on entire communities. Additionally, Florida, in particular, had an exceptionally high number of lynchings of black males at the time.

These incidents peaked as southern states including Florida delved into white supremacy. Moreover, they were disenfranchising black voters as a means of social control. The time was ripe for a tragic incident such as the Rosewood Massacre.

The Washington Post spoke to R. Thomas Dye, a historian at Florida State University. “This was a period of time when racism was very strong in the United States, very out in the open,” he told The Post. “This was the era of Jim Crow. For a black man even to say something to a white woman, that was an excuse to be lynched… And it didn’t just happen in Rosewood. Florida had the highest per capita lynching in the United States.”

Rosewood Massacre Victims Buried

Getty ImagesVictims of the massacre being buried in Rosewood, Florida. Jan. 9, 1923.

The Rosewood Massacre

The morning of Jan. 1, 1923, a neighbor heard 22-year-old Fannie Coleman Taylor scream. Taylor, who lived in neighboring Sumner, Florida, claimed that a black man had entered her house assaulted her. She reportedly specified to Sheriff Robert Elias Walker that she was not raped.

Seeking revenge, her husband, James Taylor, requested help from neighboring counties. He also sent a telegraph to nearby Gainesville, Florida, where a large number of KKK members had just staged a celebration the night before.

The Real Rosewood Foundation reported that Taylor’s dispatch “provoked four to five hundred Klansman to head to Sumner” to assist him on his quest to bring the alleged black man to justice. “They packed their gear and headed to Rosewood with a vengeance to participate in destroying the town at any cost. The posse arrived enraged, rabid, and ravenous for blood.”

Eventually, this mob of angry white men burned the entire town to the ground. There was one exception – the home of John Wright, a white merchant. Survivors recalled that they mutilated and killed every black person that they could find.

They dragged the husband of the woman who cleaned the Taylors’ clothes and beat him in the street. The wife, Sarah Carrier, was later shot alongside her son. A blacksmith named Sam Carter was tortured, shot, and hung from a tree in the woods. House and churches were attacked, burned, and destroyed. Many Rosewood residents fled, never to return.

“A foul and lasting blot has been placed on the people of Levy County, in which Rosewood is situated,” the Tampa Times reported at the time.

Sheriff Robert Elias Walker

Getty ImagesSheriff Robert Elias Walker holds the gun he used during the riots in Sumner, Florida. Jan. 9, 1923.

Another newspaper account of the massacre recalled that “The negroes escaped from the house after two of them had been shot to death by the whites who rained bullets on the structure until their ammunition was exhausted. A negro was shot to death…on the graves of his mother and brother when he is said to have refused to tell his white captors the names of those … who fired on the white men.”

The Jan. 5, 1923, Tallahassee Democrat reported: “During the night when the attackers ran out of ammunition, and several had left to replenish the supply, the negroes, leaving the bodies of two women and one man in the house, escaped. The bloodstains indicated that several had been wounded. Immediately after, the mob began firing the buildings in the village. When the village was in flames, it was said that members of the mob fired upon negroes who were fleeing from their homes.”

A Bloody Aftermath

Nobody knows for sure how many people died in the Rosewood Massacre. Documented deaths included six black people and two white, but survivors say the toll was much higher. A grand jury investigated the Rosewood Massacre beginning on Feb. 12, 1923. But after hearing the testimony of 25 witnesses including eight black people, the grand jury concluded that they could find no evidence upon which to base any indictments. It seemed the ravaged minorities of Rosewood would receive no justice.

That is, until 1982 when Gary Moore, a journalist for theĀ St. Petersburg Times resurrected the story. Moore conducted a series of interviews with survivors of the Rosewood Massacre led by Rosewood descendant Arnett Doctor. Moore went on to publish a series of articles about the massacre that gained national attention.

Rosewood Florida Heritage Sign

Public domainA Florida heritage landmark plaque to memorialize the massacre. Florida. 2008.

Justice And Legacy

Black survivors of Rosewood and their descendants joined together in 1993 to ask the Florida legislature to “acknowledge that the atrocity occurred; to admit that the state failed to protect the black residents; and finally, to pay.”

The Guardian reported that “By April 1994, the House passed a bill to compensate victims of the attack with a 71-40 vote. Four days later, on April 9, 1994, the Senate passed a matching bill with a vote of 26-14, to cries of ‘Praise the Lord!’ from those Rosewood descendants present.” Democratic governor Lawton Chiles signed the bill into effect later that year.

The official trailer for 1997’s Rosewood.

The Rosewood Massacre hit the silver screen with the 1997 release of the film Rosewood, directed by John Singleton. Singleton promoted the movie as a dramatization and did not claim that the film was historically accurate.

The movie introduced several characters not based on real people such as Ving Rhames who played a pistol-toting outsider.

The supporting cast included Don Cheadle as Sylvester Carrier, a victim of the riot; and Jon Voight as a sympathetic white store owner. Other cast members included Michael Rooker as the white sheriff and Esther Rolle.

In addition to reparations, the state designated Rosewood as a Florida Heritage Landmark and it remains a vital memorial to a time of racial violence we hope never to see again.

Are you fascinated by the story of the Rosewood Massacre? Next, check out the story behind the tragic Jonestown Massacre, before reading about the crimes of Albert Fish, the Brooklyn Vampire.

Samuel Warde
In addition to being a writer, Samuel is a social activist, photographer and cat lover.