It was cold. Very cold. Even the old folks couldn’t remember it being so cold. And it was no time to be sloshing through the swamp in the middle of the night in your nightclothes. But there they were; blacks fleeing white mobs as their homes were being burned to the ground. It is an enduring scar on the face of Florida. How and why did this happen?
On Monday, January 1, 1923, Frances (Fannie) Taylor, who was twenty-two years old at the time, alleged that a black man had assaulted her in her home. She collapsed and was taken to a neighbor’s home. She was visibly bruised and said the attack took place while her husband, James Taylor, was at work at the Cummer Sawmill in Sumner, just two miles from Rosewood. She claimed the man robbed her as well.
Fannie’s version of what took place that morning was disputed by a black woman, Sarah Carrier, who was present with her granddaughter, Philomena Goins, at the Taylor home that morning. Carrier worked for Taylor doing housework. Although she was questioned at the scene by Levy County Sheriff Robert Elias Walker, Carrier did not admit to knowing anything. When she returned home to Rosewood, she told her version and blacks believed it. According to Sarah Carrier, Fannie had been attacked by her white lover who Carrier had seen come to the house while the woman’s husband was at work. Carrier indicated that some sort of confrontation developed between Fannie and her lover which resulted in her injuries, for which Fannie needed an explanation.
The sheriff was notified that an escaped convict named Jesse Hunter was in the area, and suspicion fell first upon this man. A group of white men, mostly from Sumner and workers from the Cummer Sawmill, organized themselves to search for the alleged assailant, possibly Hunter, who had escaped from a prison work crew in Otter Creek a few miles east of Rosewood.
The sheriff obtained bloodhounds later that day, and the dogs took the scent from Taylor’s house and led the search team towards Rosewood. The dogs led the search party to the home of Aaron Carrier, a black man who, under duress and torture, implicated another black man, Sam Carter, in the incident.
At this juncture, the sheriff intervened to get Carrier away from the angry white men. He had him driven to Bronson, the county seat, for safekeeping. The search party went to Sam Carter’s house. They now suspected that Carter may have used his wagon to assist the fugitive to escape. In the effort to force him to reveal what he knew, Carter was seized and strung up in a tree.
Ernest Parham, a nineteen-year-old white man who lived in Sumner and worked at the general store, years later reported that the store owner instructed him to tell people that the store had sold out of ammunition. The store owner hid his stock of ammunition so as to keep it from the growing crowd of white men who were converging on Sumner.
Parham said that after he closed the store, he noticed a police car, usually driven by Levy County Deputy Sheriff Clarence Williams, parked outside. Williams had left his car and walked to Rosewood which was about two miles away. Parham said he drove the deputy’s car to Rosewood, taking a back road. He said he found Williams near Rosewood and heard a noise coming from a crowd down the road.
This was the attack on Sam Carter. Parham said he left the deputy and walked down the road to where the crowd was gathered around Carter. He saw that a group of men had strung Carter up in a tree in an effort to force him to reveal information about the fugitive. Parham stepped in and convinced the men to let Carter down. Carter led the search party to a place where he said he left the fugitive.
The tracking dogs failed to pick up a scent, provoking one of the men to shoot and kill Sam Carter. Following the shooting, the crowd dispersed. The search party continued to look for the alleged assailant, now believing that the man they sought was being protected by Sylvester Carrier in Rosewood.
On January 4, 1923, several white men approached the Carrier home, demanding that Sylvester Carrier come out. When he did not emerge, two of the white men came onto the porch and shot and killed a dog that had been tied to the front of the house.
According to the children who were in the Carrier home that night, one of the white men, C.P. “Poly” Wilkerson, who was a former quarter boss at the Cummer mill, kicked in the door. They said Sylvester Carrier shot and killed Wilkerson. Henry Andrews, a second white man, tried to enter the Carrier home and was also shot and killed by Sylvester Carrier. The white men retreated as gunfire was exchanged.
When the whites exhausted their ammunition, a lull in the gunfire occurred, and the children, with the assistance of older relatives, were able to escape the home and run into the swamps of Gulf Hammock. The following day, three bodies were removed from the Carrier home. It is not clear if Sylvester Carrier was among them.
The body of Sylvester’s mother, Sarah, was recovered as were the bodies of Poly Wilkerson and Henry Andrews. Some family members believed that Sylvester Carrier was still alive and said that they received Christmas greetings from him many years after the after events of 1923.
The reports of the white men’s deaths were responsible for the quick escalation of events, and an untold number of whites descended upon Rosewood. Some of these men even came from out of the state. Whites burned all the black homes in Rosewood and killed additional blacks including Mingo Williams who was killed some twenty miles from Rosewood, and Lexie Gordon, a light-skinned black women who was ill at the time and could not get out of Rosewood. They also killed James Carrier, who had only one arm. He was taken to his mother’s grave and shot there.
One of the most moving stories to come from the Rosewood massacre was told by survivor Lee Ruth Bradley Davis who was a young girl at the time and was among the children who were out in the cold swamp as the town burned. She said that when the small group of children she was with saw a white man on a horse approaching them, they hid in the bushes. She said the man was calling them to help them, but they did not know it at the time. She said the man was crying. They hid until he left.
Some white residents came to the assistance of Rosewood blacks. John W. Wright, who owned a general store in Rosewood, hid children in his home and was instrumental in getting a train into Rosewood to rescue women and children. A white deputy sheriff, Morris Cannon, went into the woods to bring the children to the depot for their rescue.
Several black women and children were then taken to Gainesville by train although no boys over thirteen were allowed to board for fear that if they were discovered by the roaming mobs it would endanger everyone. Two white men, James and Creighton Bryce, owned and operated the train that sneaked into Rosewood that night to rescue blacks.
A major point of contention was that state officials, particularly the governor, knew about events in Rosewood and chose not to act. Governor Cary Hardee went hunting on January 4, even though he was aware of events in Rosewood. Levy County Sheriff Robert Elias Walker had advised the governor that he saw no need for troops to be sent to Rosewood; thus, no National Guard troops were deployed.
On January 29, 1923 a special grand jury was appointed to present a report to the Governor on events at Rosewood. The group convened in Bronson on February 12, 1923, and heard from thirteen witnesses.
Upon conclusion of its work on February 16, 1923, the grand jury issued a report in which it was stated that they were unable to obtain evidence that could be used for indictments of persons involved in the disturbance.
No white person was ever charged in the massacre at Rosewood. “Only one was listed as an actual murderer- a man named Bryant Hudson. He was 25 years old at the time. Four witnesses named Hudson as the man who shot Sam Carter that night by the edge of the woods. ‘Hudson,’, states the FDLE report, ‘is the only suspect identified as having committed a homicide.’
Records show Bryant Hudson died at a veterans’ hospital in Lake City in 1931 from injuries, friends say, he received in a fight.”D Órso, Like Judgment Day, 325. At least a dozen white people watched Hudson pull the trigger shooting Carter in the face. Some were even appalled by the killing, but in true keeping with the code of the South, nobody talked.For a list of Rosewood survivors see Rosewood Remembered.
Note: The above account of the events in Rosewood is based primarily on the Special Masters Final Report, a state-sponsored study of the incident which was prepared by four scholars: Dr. Maxine D. Jones, Dr. Larry E. Rivers, Dr. David R. Colburn, Dr. R. T. Dye, and Dr. William W. Rogers. The report to the Florida Legislature dated March 24, 1994, became the officially accepted version of the tragedy. The study was ordered because several Rosewood survivors and descendants filed a Claims Bill demanding reparations from the state because the state failed to protect black lives and property in Rosewood.