The Rosewood story was buried for decades when in the early 1990s with the free assistance of the law firm Holland & Knight, some of the survivors of the attack filed a Claims Bill in the Florida legislature demanding reparations from the state for their losses in Rosewood.
Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, signed the Rosewood Claims Bill authorizing the appointment of a Special Master to investigate the facts and make a recommendation to the legislature regarding the claims. Dr. Maxine Jones, an African American, was selected to head the team of highly recognized Florida historians to conduct the study.
In April, 1994, the legislature agreed to pay reparation to some of the survivors and descendants. A major reason that the state agreed to pay Rosewood survivors was based upon Ernest Parham’s testimony which clearly indicated that at least one police officer, Clarence Williams, knew of the attack on Sam Carter and failed to intervene.C. J. Bassett, House Bill 591: Florida Compensates Rosewood Victims and Their Families for a Seventy-One-Year-Old Injury, 22 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 503 (1994).
There was stiff resistance to the Claims Bill. Some members of the legislature worried about establishing a precedent which could bring about more such claims. Members were hearing from white voters who did not feel that they should have to pay for wrongs committed by others.
The leader of the state study, Dr. Maxine Jones, expressed regret that despite the testimonies of the black victims, it took the testimony of a white man to convince the state that the black victims of Rosewood and their descendants deserved compensation for their losses.Kennedy interview Ernest Parham was eighty-nine years-old, widowed and living alone in Orlando in the early 1990s when he was interviewed by members of the state-sponsored study team.D Órso, 324-325.
Digging up the past
After a few years of research about Rosewood, I became the co-owner of five acres of land in Rosewood, having purchased the property because it once contained a portion of the railroad depot site. As far as I know, this was the first purchase by a black person, of land in Rosewood proper since the massacre. The property had barely been touched since the events of 1923. Several hundred feet of the old railroad bed run through the property. It was confirmed that the property was within yards of the railroad depot when we discovered very old Rosewood fence posts still connected by sagging barbed wire, along both sides of the railroad bed, just yards away from where we believe the depot sat. Robie Mortin told me that there was a fence near the depot to keep people from crossing in front of the train.
Once I became a property-owner in Rosewood some of the neighbors began to come around. In time, I met the woman who owns the property where the Rosewood Masonic Lodge once stood. Substantial public records, including tax records and county deeds, document that the lodge was located on her five- acre site. The site currently accommodates a family home. The owner allowed me to conduct research on her land whereupon we began uncovering some of the relics of Rosewood.
Among those relics is what appears to be a ceremonial sword, possibly used by the Masons. A black Mason was present when the object was uncovered. He said it looked like the ceremonial sword that was common to all Masonic lodges. Even though rusted on the outside, its core is bright steel and appears to have been undamaged after nine decades underground. Locals showed me a well that appears to have been dug for the railroad depot since it is located just a few yards from where we discovered the remains of some of the red brick foundations for the depot building.
Ralph McNeal, Jr., Grand Historian for the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Arizona, has researched the Rosewood Lodge. According to him, the Masonic Lodge in Rosewood was officially named “Lodge No. 148 and was a Prince Hall affiliated lodge under the Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge.” It was the only Masonic lodge in Rosewood. According to McNeal, “On the rolls of the MW Union GL of Florida were the names of Sam Carter, Aaron Carrier and Sylvester Carrier.” According to Levy County records the land for the Masonic lodge was sold to the Masons by the Sauls family in 1906. I discovered the exact location of the Rosewood Masonic Lodge on June 6, 2010, just hours before Robie Mortin’s death.
In later digs at the Masonic Lodge site, researchers found clumps of blackboard chalk that were still capable of writing.In 2009, I found a pristine road running along the south side of the railroad track. A deep ditch runs along both sides of the road wide enough to allow two horse-drawn wagons to pass each other. This may have been the Rosewood Back Road. On both sides of the road there are crossovers, allowing one to cross the ditch and enter clearings where houses probably stood. For a time, I was allowed access to the Rosewood Cemetery, now on private property, and was able to take photographs of some of the few visible tombstones and markers.
I found relics of the Bradley family sugar mill in 2012. It is located north of Highway 24 on a dirt road running north to south, which passes through what was the center of the town. Levy County public records show that the property was once owned by the Bradley family. The current owner found a perfectly intact pair of eyeglasses, which judging by the size of the frame, belonged to a woman. The lenses are singed from fire.
Where are the bodies?
Some Rosewood descendants, and others, believe that there is a mass grave in Rosewood. Those of this opinion question the state’s finding that only eight people died, two whites and six blacks. I allow for the strong possibility that more people died in the chaos than the state was able to document. There were so many whites in the woods seeking victims that it defies logic that they only killed six blacks. I have also had three local whites confide in me that there is a mass grave, but nobody would tell me where it is.
I received a call from the late Stetson Kennedy one night in 2009. Kennedy was a white man who infiltrated the KKK and lived to tell about it. His book, Palmetto Country, is a classic work on the era. “They are watching you in Rosewood”, he said. “Did you find the mass grave yet?” I told Kennedy I had no idea if there is a mass grave in Rosewood or not, and that, in any event, I was not searching for one. “That’s not what my informant in Rosewood told me,” he said. “She said they think you bought that property because you think it holds the mass grave. But it doesn’t, so right now they aren’t too worried about you. But they say if you get anywhere near that grave, they are going to bulldoze the bones into the Gulf of Mexico.” Of course, I asked him for the identity of the Rosewood informant. “You got to come up here [North Florida] to see me to find out,” he said. However, within a few months of that conversation, he died.[i]
But, does a mass grave in Rosewood exist? As part of the state study, there was a search for a grave for a few days, but nothing was found. However, there are suggestive glimpses into the possible existence of a mass grave in Rosewood. The most intriguing suggestions came from a white man, Fred Kirkland, who was a boy at the time. He reported that as many as 35 women and children were dropped in a well, two days following the attack on the Carrier home. Another white man, Jason McElveen, reported seeing a mule being used to pull a plow which was dragging dirt over 26 more bodies. At the time, James Turner, a white 14- year- old boy, who grew up to become the sheriff of Levy County, reported that he was taken to an open grave and shown an entangled pile of bodies. He estimated that there were at least 17 victims at that site.[ii] Given the extent of the attack, the operation of independent gangs roaming the woods killing at will, and the scattering of the people following the attack, it is difficult to ever ascertain the body count. Still, the very scale of the event decries the idea that only seven victims perished as was concluded in the official report to the legislature.
In February, 2021, my son Douglas and I drove to several places in Florida where racial violence took place. We collected “blood soil” at each location to be placed in mason jars for display at public events.
On January 3, 2016, I found a photograph of a Rosewood burial site that included four graves. I asked the historical consultant for this book, author Janis Owens, a white woman and self-defined Florida Cracker, who has lived in the region for many years to examine the image. This is her analysis.
“The gravesite photograph shows men, women, children and a few babes in arms, all dressed for Florida winter weather in hats sweaters, the children in coats. All are dressed well, as if for church or a funeral, and the atmosphere is relaxed, some of the women talking among themselves, some watching the cameraman, a few eyeing the gravesite. There are family groups, and to the far right of photograph, three men in the same uniform, in knee britches and leather knee chaps, which were used to walk in underbrush for protection from scrub and snake bite. One man on the far right end is wearing a trench coat. The women seem familiar with each other, and several have children with them. All are white. A white man in the forefront is hammering in a stob to mark a grave site.
The photo appears to have been taken in full light, against a cutover section of pine flatwoods, with zolofo sand. There are possible turpentine cuts on the bottom of the pine behind the man with the ax (and a cat face higher on other pine) and assume photo (and graves) are on the edge of cut-over lumber property. The graves are close to a road or logging path as the women wouldn’t have carried babies a long way through the woods on a cold day. The car in the background would not have been able to penetrate thick undergrowth.
The men in knee britches and half chaps are in uniform that match the associated photograph of Sheriff Robert Walker, also dated January 9, 1923, of him holding Sylvester Carrier’s shotgun. The man in the middle of gravesite photograph leaning against pine tree appears to be Sheriff Walker, with his uniform coat buttoned. In the photograph of him holding shotgun, his coat is opened. In the photograph of him with shotgun there is a small blonde child in the far left corner who bears very clear resemblance to blonde child in the gravesite photograph.
|↑1||C. J. Bassett, House Bill 591: Florida Compensates Rosewood Victims and Their Families for a Seventy-One-Year-Old Injury, 22 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 503 (1994).|
|↑3||D Órso, 324-325.|