This Day In History: January 1

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On the first day of 1923, white vigilante mobs begin their descent upon the predominantly Black community of Rosewood, Florida. In an attack that would last several days, they shoot and beat Black residents, set buildings aflame and raze the small, but prosperous mill town that was home to approximately 200 people.

Earlier that day, Fannie Taylor, a white resident of Sumner, a nearby North Florida town, had been heard screaming in her home. When a neighbor arrived, Taylor, visibly beaten, claimed that a Black man had assaulted her. They reported the alleged attack to the sheriff, and James Taylor, Fannie’s husband, gathered a white mob to search for a Black man who might be his wife’s assailant. According to the official 1993 Florida state report on the incident, some from the local community recounted that a white man, possibly a lover, was seen visiting Fannie Taylor that morning; some speculate that he may have been the one who assaulted her and that she fabricated the story of a Black assailant to hide her affair.

The Sheriff’s office, without evidence, had already chosen a suspect: Jesse Hunter, a Black prisoner who had recently escaped a chain gang. Under the guise of finding Hunter, white mobs  staged a multi-day attack on Rosewood. They torched all the town’s homes and churches, shot at residents fleeing the blazes, held firefights with residents defending their homes and lynched several men they accused of harboring Hunter. Many Rosewood residents fled in terror, often just in their nightclothes, to nearby swamps to hide from the mobs.

While some estimates have ranged higher, the official death count included at least six Black residents and two white attackers. As news of what was occurring in Rosewood spread, falsely casting the town’s Black residents as instigators, more white men joined the violent mobs, including Ku Klux Klan members. Some Black residents were able to escape via train to Gainesville. 

The story of the the Rosewood Massacre was largely ignored until 1982, when a St. Petersburg Times reporter wrote a series of articles about its history. This led the town’s remaining survivors, in their old age, to demand restitution from the state. In 1994, the Florida state legislature passed a bill that allotted the nine living survivors $150,000 each, with significantly smaller sums to descendant families, just half of whom received more than $2,000.

The bill also established a scholarship for Rosewood descendants to receive a Florida state university, college or postsecondary education free of tuition. The bill is considered the first of its kind; no legislative body in the U.S. had previously given reparations to Black people. In 1997, director John Singleton dramatized the massacre in his 1997 film, Rosewood.

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