In the 1920s, racial violence by white mobs led to the destruction of the black communities of Rosewood and Ocoee. What do we do about such crimes, so long after the powers-that-be at the time refused to prosecute them? First, we tell the story.
Rick Holmes, an award-winning journalist and longtime GateHouse Media columnist, is on the road in search of the ties that bind Americans - and the forces that pull them apart. With all eyes on Washington, Rick reports from real places too often reduced to primary colors on an election map.
ROSEWOOD, Florida – Here in North Florida, the land is flat, the roads are straight and one mile looks a lot like another mile.
The roads run past fields, pasture and forests of pine, palms and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Great flocks of vultures circle overhead, more than I’ve ever seen in one place. On one forested road I came on a spot where they filled the trees. I didn’t like the way they were looking at me.
The straight roads have numbers, not names. But get off the paved roads, and you can still find sandy lanes that twist and turn, roads with names given by people long forgotten, in communities long gone. Near the junction of SW 95th Ave. and State Route 24 is what’s left of one such community that held its secrets for 59 years. Its name was Rosewood.
On New Year’s Day, 1923, Rosewood was a community that supported three churches, a school, a black fraternal organization and a baseball team, the Rosewood Stars. It was a village in which almost everyone was black save the owner of one of two local stores, John Wright, who was white.
That morning, a white woman in nearby Sumner claimed, probably falsely, that she had been assaulted by a black man. A posse was formed to hunt the culprit with dogs, but their search turned into a reign of terror, the posse into a killing mob. Over several days, Rosewood residents were tortured and lynched. Wright managed to hide some black women and children in his house, but only a few.
There was resistance, and some whites were shot along with countless blacks. Word spread about the “riot” in Rosewood, and local and national newspapers fanned the flames. The white mob grew, and soon it was burning houses, churches and businesses, shooting the people who fled from them. Rosewood’s black residents were driven into the swamps. No one knows how many were killed and how many escaped, but they never came back to Rosewood.
It was a horrible story, and one that disappeared quickly. Newspapers moved on to other topics. Survivors and perpetrators of the massacre went silent.
There are more Rosewoods out there than you might think. A two-hour drive from Rosewood is Ocoee, just outside Orlando. On Election Day in 1920, a white mob rallied by the Ku Klux Klan went after the leaders of a black voter registration drive, including two prosperous African-American business leaders.
One of them, Julius Perry, resisted, shooting three white men breaking into his house. He was arrested, then released to the mob, who hung him by the neck from a telephone pole. Strengthened by reinforcements from Orlando and neighboring towns, the mob set about driving the other African-Americans out and burning their homes. Sixty or more people were killed, at least 20 buildings were burned and some 500 African-Americans were driven out of town, with whatever property they owned taken from them. Ocoee became an all-white town, and stayed that way for 60 years.
In Groveland, 20 miles west of Ocoee, the mob wore a sheriff’s uniform. There, in 1949, four African-American men were falsely accused of raping a white woman. One of the men was killed by a white posse 200 miles from Groveland. The other three were tortured, tried and convicted by an all-white jury, with local media, including the Orlando Sentinel, feeding anti-black hysteria.
The defense of the “Groveland Four,” led by legal pioneer Thurgood Marshall, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial for the two defendants facing the death penalty. But before that trial could happen, Sheriff Willis McCall took the two for a ride and shot them. One died, but the other survived long enough to accuse the sheriff of cold-blooded murder. McCall was never charged, and continued to be elected Lake County sheriff until 1972.
What do we do about such crimes, so long after the powers-that-be at the time refused to prosecute them? First, we tell the story.
Rosewood’s story was a well-kept secret until 1982, when a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times stumbled on it. After his article, witnesses and survivors came forward. CBS’ “60 Minutes” gave it national play. Best-selling books and a feature film followed. Survivors filed claims against the state. In 1993, the state Legislature commissioned a group of historians to separate fact from fiction, and their report prompted payments to the few remaining survivors and creation of a scholarship fund for their descendants. A historical marker was placed in front of John Wright’s house, the sole remaining house in Rosewood.
Ocoee, a thriving Orlando suburb, is just now facing its past. A historian researched the massacre for a book and eventually got the attention of city officials. Last November, the city issued a proclamation expressing its “regret and horror” at the 1920 events and pledging to erect a public monument.
The Groveland Four didn’t live to see justice done, but their story kept arousing consciences in Florida. In 2017, the state House of Representatives passed a resolution exonerating them. Just this month, a state board issued an official pardon and the Orlando Sentinel published an apology for its biased, inflammatory coverage.
This is doing history right: exposing ugly secrets, making amends, and vowing to do better. In cases like these, it might be too late for justice, but it’s never too late for a reckoning with the truth.
-- Rick Holmes can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow his journey at www.rickholmes.net. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.