Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rosewood Revisited

Reginald Dogan, the dead-tree Pensacola News Journal columnist, might take a lesson from Reginald Dogan, the Pensacola News Journal blogger. While the former was deliberately dodging the most important public policy issue to emerge so far out of a sensational local murder case, the latter was justly commemorating the infamous Rosewood Massacre of January, 1823.

As Dogan writes, F.S.U. history professor Maxine Jones "will highlight the history of Rosewood and share the stories of some of the women who survived the lynchings and murders" this afternoon at the J. Earle Bowden Building in downtown Pensacola (120 E. Church Street). If you can't make it, you'll still have all of April to see the traveling exhibit at the Kate Coulson House, 200 Church Street, in Pensacola's historic district.

It's a timely reminder. Once again, as Frank Rich writes in yesterday's New York Times, we are witnessing across the nation the hysterical demonizing of a black man by a mob of vigilantes that "knows so little about history that it doesn’t recognize its own small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht."

Substitute "Rosewood" for "Kristallnacht," and you have further proof that there is much our own history can teach us today.

Today, the "weapon of choice has been a brick hurled through a window," Rich writes. Then he adds ominously, "So far."

The Rosewood Massacre occurred not far from present-day Cedar Key. As Dogan summarizes it:
[O]n what was to be a festive New Year’s Day in 1923, a white mob rampaged through the small, mostly black town of Rosewood, killing six of its residents and burning all the buildings, homes and churches.

An all-white jury heard testimony of the unforgettable mayhem and unimaginable horror, but found no one to prosecute.

During the melee, blacks had fled any and whichever way they could. Rosewood disappeared as if it never existed in history or on a map.
The murderous race riot was one among hundreds of tragic events symptomatic of the curse that still hangs over America. As U. of F. history professor David R. Colburn wrote more than a decade ago ["Rosewood and America in the Early Twentieth Century," 76 Florida Historical Quarterly 175, (1997)]:
From individual lynchings to sustained violence against entire black communities, whites in both the North and South lashed out against black Americans in a ferocious and often calculated manner during the years 1917 to 1923. Aided by a federal government that refused to intervene to protect the life and property of black citizens, whites took whatever steps they felt were necessary to keep blacks in their place. From Chicago to Tulsa, to Omaha, East St. Louis, and many communities in between, and finally to Rosewood, Florida, white mobs, often in alliance with law enforcement officials, made clear their determination to deny blacks the rights and privileges accorded whites.
The story of Rosewood was rescued from history's dustbin only in 1982 by Gary Moore, an intrepid reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. The back-story of that reporter's investigation, described in Michael D'Orso's book, Like Judgment Day, is almost as gripping as the incident itself.

Indeed, if it hadn't been for Moore, Rosewood's fate might still be unknown and a panel of historians probably never would have been commissioned to investigate the incident. [See, "A Documented History of the Incident Which Occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January, 1923"] Nor would the Florida Legislature have approved compensation for the surviving victims and a state-sponsored college scholarship program for descendants.

Good on PNJ blogger Reginald Dogan for bringing the Rosewood presentation and traveling exhibit in Pensacola to public attention. But we can't help wondering, what would have happened if back in 1982 reporter Moore had concluded, 'It's too late to debate whether lynchings and the destruction of Rosewood by a mob of racists is the way justice should be served'?

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