When an individual, group, or institution whitewashes something, they intentionally conceal information that they deem unworthy, unimportant, or unpleasant. Whitewashing occurs within families, communities, systems, art, and, most commonly, historical record.
Like the vast majority of K-12 students in America, my education (Catholic school for K-6, public school for 7-12) excluded essential historical concepts and events. Incalculable damage has been done by whitewashing history – a consequence of white supremacy – and now on occasion we hear about efforts to address the Eurocentric emphasis in curriculum. The longer our country takes to make these tangible changes, the longer it will take us to understand the structure of misogyny and white supremacy within which we live.
Those of us with privilege must offer our time and resources by joining a collective movement to actively combat racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, and inequity. In addition to these actions, we would be wise to regularly take inventory of our behavior, internal biases, and privileges while also continuing our anti-racist education. We must make an effort to learn the history that’s been whitewashed; it may not have been a choice during our youth to receive a whitewashed education, but it’s certainly our responsibility now to learn – and teach – about that which was purposefully excluded.
While I am neither a historian nor a professional educator, this platform that 540WMain has provided is an opportunity to share information that has been whitewashed.
This month I’ve read about the 1923 Rosewood Massacre in Florida. On January 1, Fannie Taylor, a white woman with noticeable bruises, told her neighbors and family that she had been attacked in her home by a black man.
The Sheriff and white townsmen suspected Jesse Hunter, a black prisoner who had escaped from a nearby chain gang. Dogs led them to the home of Sarah Carrier, a black woman who was hired to wash clothes each week at the Taylor home. Her nephew Aaron Carrier was abducted from the home and the men debated lynching him. The Sheriff was concerned that the vigilantes were out of control, and put Mr. Carrier into protective custody.
The white men tortured Sam Carter, a black resident of Rosewood, until he admitted that he had helped Hunter to escape. Mr. Carter was shot in the face by one of the men after he had taken the group to the spot in the woods to show them where he had left the prisoner; he was then shot again multiple times by others. The mob then hung his body from a tree. A young white boy witnessed and later described the events; there were no black residents – other than Mr. Carter – at the murder.
White men from neighboring communities, including Klansman, joined the vigilantes, who approached Sarah Carrier’s house, in which she was hiding black townspeople and children. Mrs. Carrier was shot to death. Sylvester Carrier, Sarah’s son, shot at the mob from inside the house, and was also killed. Other black residents in the house were wounded, including at least one black child. Two white men were killed, and at least four were wounded. The townspeople who were hiding escaped into the woods behind the house.
National newspapers and black newspapers covered the story, rumors were rampant, and more armed white men descended on Rosewood. Four days after the murders had begun, there was a mob of 200-300 people. They burned churches and shot at those who came out of the homes that they set on fire. Lexie Gordon, who tried to escape her burning home, was shot to death.
The Governor was considering sending the Florida National Guard to Rosewood, but the Sheriff declined the assistance. Black residents throughout the town abandoned their homes in their bedclothes, without any possessions, to escape the vigilantes. Some who tried to leave the town were blocked by the Sheriff, and white guards were positioned to keep those who had fled from returning.
Sarah’s son James Carrier, who had been in the house during the attack and escaped, was captured by at least two dozen men who interrogated him about the siege on the house. He would not name the other residents who escaped, and he was shot multiple times and died. The mob burned the remaining black houses in Rosewood to the ground. Research has shown that there were a total of 18 destroyed homes.
The following month, after listening to 8 black witnesses and 17 white witnesses, a white grand jury found insufficient evidence to prosecute any of the white men involved. The number of people killed during that week is disputed; survivors have said that up to as many as 27 black residents had been killed, and even a white man who was part of the mob acknowledged that there was a mass grave of 17+ black people covered by a plow. The official documented death toll was 8 deaths: 6 black, 2 white.
The trauma of the incident irrevocably changed the lives of the survivors, and many had a silent understanding that they would not speak of the events; some changed their names. Others shared the story within their families. News coverage ended. Then, decades later in the 1980s, to his family’s dismay, the son of a Rosewood survivor discussed details of the massacre with a reporter and it ultimately aired on 60 Minutes, reviving national attention.
In 1993, a lawsuit was filed against the state of Florida by survivors for failing to provide protection during the mob riots. Florida ultimately passed a bill that would offer a chance for hate crime victims to be compensated, named the Rosewood Compensation Bill.
The last survivor of the Rosewood Massacre died on May 2, 2018. Mary Hall Daniels was 3 years old when she escaped the vigilante mob, traveled through a swamp on a cold January night, and boarded a train.
This abhorrent and complex part of American history has many threads that need to be pulled and examined carefully, and each thread is held firmly by the stitch of white supremacy. Despite claims that “things are different now,” black men are still routinely accused of crimes they did not commit; white men regularly exert vigilante “justice” outside law and logic; racist mob mentality continues; fears of “race mixing” are alive and well; and white supremacy continues to hold it all together.
Significant national historical context and more details of these murders can be found in the Documented History of the Incident Which Occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923, submitted to the Florida Board of Regents in 1993 by an investigative team.
The Rosewood Heritage Foundation has an extensive online archive of publications, timelines, documentation, and oral history transcripts from survivors. There is an opportunity on their website to donate to the Rosewood Scholarship.
The photo shown is from the BlackPast website, and identified as public domain.
Any Four Black Men Will Do: Rape, Race, and the Ultimate Scapegoat by Tracey Owens Patton and Julie Snyder-Yuly (Journal of Black Studies, 2007)
Florida Lynched More Black People Per Capita Than Any Other State by Ray Downs (Broward Palm Beach New Times, 2015)
Ida B. Wells and the Lynching of Black Women by Dr. Crystal N. Feimster (The New York Times, 2018)
Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood by Michael D’Orso (1996)
Mixed Race: The Threat of White America by Patrice Farmer (The Multiracial Activist, 2003)
The Rosewood Massacre by Edward González-Tennant (2018)
What is White Supremacy? by Elizabeth Martínez