This year marks the centennial anniversary of the massacre in the town of Rosewood. WUFT’s Kristin Moorehead spoke to University of Florida history professor Steve Noll about the significance of this event.
Editor’s note: This interview transcript and the audio above have been edited for length and clarity.
KRISTIN MOOREHEAD: Can you give me a little bit of backstory about what this town was like, before all the violence?
STEVE NOLL: Well, first of all, it’s an almost exclusively African American town. There’s one white store owner who lives there. It is a town that is fairly tied into the ideas of Jim Crow in which African Americans are segregated. African Americans in Rosewood manage to make a decent life within the parameters of Jim Crow. Many of them own their own houses, some of them own their own businesses, and many of them worked for the Cummer Lumber Company, which had a mill in the adjoining all white town of Sumner where African Americans who lived in Rosewood and in the surrounding Levy County area worked. And they also worked, females worked within the households of those people in Sumner.
MOOREHEAD: So after that, what were some of the catalysts that led up to what happened?
NOLL: Well, certainly, there’s always tension existing in the Jim Crow South, and any small incident can can set off some sort of white response to an assumption that African Americans are not staying in their position, which is a subservient one. The incident that led to this particular event was the assumption of a white woman who claimed that she had been raped by a unknown Black assailant. The three things that were catalysts for white response to Black assumptions were attacks on white women, African Americans attempting to vote and African Americans who participated in economic opportunity, you know, fulfilling the American Dream by moving upward, which was not the position that whites assumed African Americans should have. So those three things were the basic causes of white violence in the south during that time period. And I think two of those took place at rosewood, I think there was some jealousy among whites living in Sumner that African Americans had their own homes, had their own businesses, were doing fairly well. And then the immediate cause, which was the the accusation of sexual assault by a white woman.
MOOREHEAD: And then, once that assumption was made, how did the violence start to escalate?
NOLL: The assumption was that the Black assailant fled to the all Black town of Rosewood, where he would have been sheltered. And whites went into Rosewood attempting to find the man and it escalated from there. Whites attacked a Black house and were were met by Black resistance and Black gunfire. Whites were killed. And that really initiated an even bigger white response. You know, not only are we looking for the perpetrator of the of the alleged assault, we are now going to have to punish the town for responding in such a violent fashion to what we assume was our duty to protect white women.
MOOREHEAD: And so when you visit the town today, what all is left, is there anything left there?
NOLL: The only thing that is left there is the house of the white man who lived in, in the community. That’s it, the rest of the town is completely gone. There’s a sign that says, you know, Rosewood, entering Rosewood, then there is the historic marker that marks, that tell us what happened that day. There’s some cemeteries there that exist kind-of in the back that you can kind-of go to if you have access to the land. But that’s it, there’s nothing there.
MOOREHEAD: Can you tell me a little bit more about how you started to get involved with Rosewood?
NOLL: As a teacher of Florida history, and in particular of the time period from the Civil War to today, Rosewood is an example of Jim Crow-Florida at its worst. And when you talk about Jim Crow, you often talk about areas like Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia. And the assumption is that the worst experiences of racial violence take place there. When you find out that these things took place in Florida, and not only in Florida, but in an area that is really close to where you live, it’s, you know, fairly shocking, and you want to be able to, you want to be able to dig deeper into that. And so maybe, maybe 20, 25 years ago, I went on a bus trip with my son, who now is an adult and teaches history at Georgia State in Atlanta, with Joel Buchanan, who was probably the most important African American activist in Gainesville, ends up at UF and the Joel Buchanan archives are here at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. And Joel took us on a bus tour of Rosewood, going back into the cemetery talking about this explaining the descendants and everything else. So that was, that was kind-of eye opening. And that got me kind of interested to dig deeper. And my mentor here at UF was David Colburn, who was history professor, associate dean and then Provost of the University, but he was on the Rosewood Investigation Committee, along with Larry Rivers of FAMU and Maxine Jones of FSU, who presented their report to the state legislature in the 1990s. Colburn and Rivers and Jones’s report is what led to the legislature passing the fact that there could be some compensation for the descendants. So David, and I talked a lot about this. And then, you know, it’s integrated into my classes. And certainly the summer programs that I did, was really important, because we talked, I had several programs with high school students who went out there who most of whom didn’t know anything about this. And we ended up at a Black church in Chiefland, where we talked about this, which was profoundly moving because many of these people had relatives, or friends, who were involved in the incident, the massacre in 1923. And it was profoundly moving for these high school students, and then also with K-12, teachers would then take this information back to their classrooms.
MOOREHEAD: When you’re teaching about this history, is there anything while you’re talking about it, while you’re explaining it, perhaps to students who have no idea what happened, that you try to particularly emphasize? Or is there any important lesson?
NOLL: Well, I try to emphasize that this is about people. And it’s about historical memory. And the fact that this memory has been repressed for so long that within mainstream white media, it was not talked about. Or if it was talked about, it was talked about as a race riot, with Blacks and whites fighting against each other, as opposed to whites coming in and burning down the town. I talk about also that it is not necessarily an aberration. That three years earlier in Ocoee, the Black community of Ocoee was destroyed because black individuals had the temerity to try and vote, you know, try and exercise their citizenship right. They were prevented from doing that and the town was was pretty much destroyed. And in Newberry in the previous decade, there was lynchings that took place. So that, though this is horrific, it is not aberrational, that at some level it is fairly typical of what goes on in the south during the time period of Jim Crow, particularly the first three decades of the 20th century, and especially after World War One.
MOOREHEAD: And why is it important to tell this history and remember this history?
NOLL: I think it’s extraordinarily important to understand, you know, where we come from and what has happened in the past, and that by repressing it or ignoring it, we tend to say that this stuff didn’t happen. And I think it allows us to, as difficult it is to talk about it, we need to understand what America was like in this time period of racial segregation. You know? I think students think racial segregation was about “you couldn’t drink at the water fountain,” right? “You couldn’t go to the same school.” That’s bad. But, you know, I don’t think they understand, or even typical Americans, whatever that is, don’t understand just how fraught with violence this time period was and that how African Americans had to at all times be careful of everything that they did.
MOOREHEAD: What do you think the legacy of Rosewood is, and how does this history affect the people who live here?
NOLL: Well, I think I think when you say the people who live here, I think it affects both Black and white Floridians, Gainesville-ians, Levy County residents. For African Americans, it is a reminder of a brutal past. And reminder that this past is not so far past, or may not even be past when you look at the Rosewood sign and see that it is that it is riddled with bullet holes. One year we had my students in there and they were looking at the sign and motorcycles went by and, you know, they revved up their engines. And there was no overt yelling or screaming, but the implication certainly was “you do not belong here.” And very similar to what Marvin Dunn experienced, although I think it probably was worse for him because he was an African American guy. But these kids were were pretty freaked out that that.
MOOREHEAD: And is there anything else that you’d like to add that you think we didn’t get to?
NOLL: Well, I think it’s really interesting what would happen today, regarding compensation. The fact that, for my classes, the words, the hashtag is #WordsMatter. And it’s not reparations. It’s called compensation. And compensation was given to the descendants of the survivors of the Rosewood massacre. And I tell my students to look at your application when you apply to UF or any school in the state system, there’s a box that says Rosewood descendant or Rosewood survivor, and then you’re eligible for scholarship money. That’s pretty amazing that the state did that during that time, I’m not sure that that would happen today, with the political climate that’s there. You know, the assumption is today, we have to move past that we don’t want to think about issues like Rosewood. I think it’s really important that the commemoration of this event is taking place at a time in which we are told we don’t need to be talking about these things. So I think it’s really important and I think it’s kind of ironic that we are discussing this event, this massacre, and again, that’s a #WordsMatter, you know, it’s a massacre. I mean, you know, this town was burned to the ground. It’s It’s ironic that we’re discussing this at a time in which, you know, we’re not supposed to be discussing issues like this.