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Rosewood: A Massacre, the Movies and the Obligations of Memory : It Took 70 Years, a Cast of Contentious Heroes and the Art of the Deal, but Justice Came at Last to the Black Survivors of a Racial Rampage in Northern Florida.

October 16, 1994|Eric Harrison | Eric Harrison is the Times' Atlanta bureau chief

Minnie Lee Langley was 9 years old when the world as she knew it came to an end. She had been born into an uncommonly independent African-American community on Florida's upper Gulf Coast just before World War I. Langley lived with her grandparents, and her prosperous extended family had a fine two-story house nearby, with a piano in the parlor and books on the shelves.

But in one week in 1923, all that was gone. On New Years Day, and for six days afterward, white men primed with moonshine and bent on vengeance flocked to the tiny town after a black man in the adjacent community of Sumner had been accused of assaulting a white woman. At least 8 people were killed, and the homes, businesses, schools and churches of an entire town--Rosewood, population 200--were leveled.

Langley barely escaped. Half-naked, she fled with her family into the swamps. There they watched while Rosewood blazed. "We seen the fires burning," she recalls, "that fire just leaping over the railroad." To her young eyes it was like Judgment Day.

Eighty-one now and yard-rake thin, childlike once again with age, Langley is transported back to that place when she speaks of it, her voice strained yet steady. She remembers watching as a white man saved her uncle's life, wrestling him away from a lynching party. She can still see her 32-year-old cousin, Sylvester Carrier, as he pulled her into a closet under the stairway in the Carrier house. Cousin Syl told her to duck and propped a rifle on her shoulder. "When the crackers burst the door open," she says, "he shot the first one that came in."

But "the crackers" didn't stop coming, some from miles away, some from out of state. Days later, in the swamps, Langley remembers, "they were hunting for us. Anybody they saw in the woods, they just shot them down. They didn't care who they were killing." Langley's grandfather would die in the carnage; her family was separated. She lost everything.

For almost 70 years, the events that Minnie Lee Langley can recall so vividly lay half-buried. Whitewashed news account drew national attention for a time, even making the front page of the New York Times. But no one, black or white, was ever indicted for any crime. A local all-white grand jury interviewed 35 witnesses but claimed there was a lack of evidence of wrongdoing.

The survivors scattered quickly--to Tampa, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Miami and beyond--too afraid, battered or cynical to try to reclaim their property and their lives. Those who could bear to speak of it passed down the story, telling their children about the terror and their losses.

Local whites told their own version of the massacre behind closed doors, and there was talk of grisly souvenirs--body parts--kept in Mason jars and showed off from time to time. "I've seen them," claims Robin Raftis, a writer and former editor of a small north Florida weekly newspaper. "Penises, testicles, fingers, even a toe. You name it, they jarred it."

But when it came to outsiders, the victims and participants joined in a conspiracy of silence and shame. Rosewood had become a forgotten chapter of Southern history. Then last winter, the forgotten was finally officially remembered. Minnie Lee Langley and a handful of other survivors sat in a hearing room in the Florida state capital in Tallahassee, and testified to what had happened to them and to Rosewood in 1923. Two months later, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles signed into law the Rosewood Claims Bill. In an unprecedented act of Southern contrition, the bill set aside more than $2 million in reparations for Langley and other survivors.

The struggle to bare the secret, to dig up the buried past, to bring Minnie Lee Langley and the others into that hearing room to gain a measure of belated justice is a story almost as compelling as the Rosewood saga itself. In it, the survivors stand with tragic dignity, but around them swirl ego clashes, competing self-interests, suspicion and charges of racism on all sides. As the survivors tried to tell their tale, and officialdom tried to figure out what to do about it, a small group of men slugged it out on the sidelines to see who would be the hero of the contemporary drama.


Los Angeles was burning. A jury had just acquitted the four police officers who had beaten Rodney G. King, and racial tensions were erupting there and across the nation. In Miami, police were out in force as producer Michael O'McCarthy nervously drove through an African-American neighborhood looking for Lee Ruth Davis. O'McCarthy thought it ironic: After having spent a year off-and-on searching for Rosewood survivors, he'd finally found one--was on his way to see her--and the backdrop was this new conflagration of race and justice denied.

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