Levy County was established in 1845, becoming Florida’s twenty seventh county. It was named for David Levy Yulee who became the state’s first United States senator. The county seat is Bronson. Cedar Key was incorporated in 1869 and is located on the Gulf of Mexico. Rosewood is about nine miles inland from Cedar Key. The town of Sumner is located between Rosewood and Cedar Key. It was established in 1911 as a lumber town when the Cummer Sawmill was opened there.
The large wetlands south of Cedar Key is called Gulf Hammock. The hammock touches Rosewood and contained enormous red cedar trees that were heavily harvested and shipped from Cedar Key to make most of the pencils that were sold in the United States.
After the valuable rosewood trees had been harvested to near extinction, commercial pine trees were planted. This industry drew many blacks to the area many of whom migrated from South Carolina including the Goins family which became the most successful black family in Rosewood.
Rosewood survivor Robie Mortin, who was eight years old at the time of the massacre remembered Rosewood before it all happened. In the discussion that follows, she provides insight into the Rosewood community before the attack by the mobs.
“Everybody had something going. People owned acres of land, not just lots, and the houses were mostly two-story houses. The white folks really wanted those houses. That’s why a lot of the white people from around there didn’t want the mob to burn them down. But they burned them all anyway. Most of the homes were painted white. I didn’t know there was any other color of paint except white. Every house in Rosewood was painted white.”
Mortin said a few of the homes had lawns, and some homes had fruit trees and grape arbors. She said people in Rosewood had better furnishings for their homes than did the whites in Sumner. Mortin recalled that every three months or so a long mule train would come in from Gainesville along the hard road (now Highway 24) with furniture and heavy things people had ordered from Sears and Roebuck. “The [white] people from Sumner didn’t buy such things; they lived in little shanties. It was the Rosewood people who had furniture on that mule train.”
Emancipation Day offered Rosewood blacks the chance to celebrate. According to Mortin, “That was our biggest celebration. A lot of the old people came up out of slavery you know, so this was a big day for them. We had picnics. People came from all around. We had the best food. People grew their own things in those days.
At Christmas time we didn’t get toys, maybe a doll or something like that. We got fruit. It was a happy time. Life was just beautiful. It was a place where black people really had something. It was a very prosperous black town.”
Mortin could read and write when the massacre took place. “They were about to build us a school right before the massacre happened,” she said. She attended school at the Masonic Lodge which was the largest building in Rosewood.
By her description, the Masonic Lodge had a large L-shaped front porch. The party room, as it was called, was a large room in the front of the building. It was always unlocked, and it was where the Rosewood community held large functions. There was a bandstand in the room and all around the walls were benches for sitting. For musical entertainment, guitars and banjos were used.
Beyond the party room, she recalled, were two smaller rooms that were used as classrooms for the school but which were also where the Masons carried out their rituals. There were two small outhouses for the school children and two larger ones for the adults.
Mortin’s class was over right after lunch, which was when the older students from nearby Wylly arrived at the Masonic Lodge to attend classes. “All of them were teenage boys. I don’t recall ever seeing a girl among them. In order to attend school, the boys walked the five miles between Rosewood and Wylly every day, cold or not.”
Mortin played at the Carrier house nearly every Sunday. Sarah Carrier was her aunt. She recalled Sylvester Carrier who, she said, “would look any white man straight in the eye. He didn’t back down for anybody.” According to Mortin, the front yard of the Carrier home was full of flowers and fruit trees.
The plum trees were especially memorable. The house had a large stoop instead of a front porch. The parlor was a large room which one entered first. Along the back wall sat the piano. A picture of the family was painted on the back wall. To the right were the dining room and the kitchen, almost a house unto themselves.
Mortin remembered that the parlor had a large fireplace. On the left were the downstairs bedrooms and the stairs leading up to the bedrooms on the second floor. Sarah Carrier cooked on a range which she ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. It used wood and had four burners. Like almost all of the houses of substance in Rosewood, the Carrier house had a loft. There was a double outhouse in the back on the right, as one exited the back door. There was no icebox. “People killed their meat and ate it the same day. The Bradley family had a smokehouse and they smoked meat for other residents.”Robie A. Mortin interviews by Dr. Marvin Dunn, West Palm Beach, Florida and Rosewood, Florida, 2008-2010.
Another important source on events in Rosewood in 1923 is Michael D’Orso’s book, Rosewood: Like Judgement Day-The True Story of the Rosewood Massacre and Its Aftermath. In that book, Ernest Parham’s description of Rosewood supports Mortin’s recollections.
“These were very progressive black people. They had their gardens and their homes, and they kept them in real good shape, above the average for blacks at that time. No one lived in that settlement but black people, except for Mr. Wright, who had a store there. . . They were high-type people, houses kept up real good, white picket fences around some of them. They didn’t have lawns. The yards were dirt, and they swept them with big brushes. They had flowers, too, and some fruit trees. . . . The families that stood out, as I recall, were the Bradleys and the Carriers. Sarah Carrier, Sylvester Carrier’s mother, was educated, I think, because she had a piano in the front room. They kept that house looking very good, a two-story house. As I said, these were high-type people.” In the aftermath of the massacre all of the blacks left Rosewood. None returned to live there.
|Robie A. Mortin interviews by Dr. Marvin Dunn, West Palm Beach, Florida and Rosewood, Florida, 2008-2010.