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BOOK REVIEW

An Ugly Piece of American History Is Brought to Light : LIKE JUDGMENT DAY: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood by Michael D'Orso; Grosset / Putnam $27.50, 373 pages

May 23, 1996|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What happened in the Florida mill town of Rosewood on New Year's Day in 1923 is one of the dirty little secrets of U.S. history, as we discover in Michael D'Orso's extraordinary "Like Judgment Day."

A "posse" of white men, enraged over reports of an assault on a white woman, descended on the mostly black town in search of the attacker. But the posse turned into a lynch mob, and the lynching turned into a pogrom. As the mob spun wildly out of control, the black population of Rosewood and the town itself were doomed.

"Rosewood was a ghost town now," writes D'Orso, "its streets crowded with outsiders, its residents scattered into the surrounding swamp, some wearing nothing more than nightshirts, shivering and huddling as they heard the crackle of gunfire and saw smoke climbing toward the clouds."

As D'Orso writes in "Like Judgment Day," the Rosewood massacre revealed itself when Florida newspaper reporter Gary Moore began hearing stories of what had happened while working on a travel piece in 1982.

"Moore could hardly believe what he heard," D'Orso writes. "Images of torture and immolation, of unholy terror and unspeakable fear, of murder and mutilation, body parts severed and stored in mason jars still pulled out with a queer sense of pride 60 years later by those into whose hands they had been passed."

The reporter found the remarkable Arnett Doctor, son of a Rosewood survivor, "an ex-con who spoke with the polish of a professor, a veteran who had carried a carbine in the jungles of Asia and now packed a sidearm on the streets of St. Pete."

Doctor comes across as the self-appointed curator of the gallery of horrors that exist in the memory of the survivors and the champion of those scourged and ruined. Doctor invents himself as a paladin who insists on securing reparations for the victims of a race war.

As D'Orso follows Doctor back into Florida history and forward into Florida politics, he expertly unravels the knot of mystery that has hidden the massacre. We come to know the men, women and children who lived--and died.

D'Orso allows us to see all the ordinary but revealing details of a small town built on a ticking bomb: the politics of race, the frictions of class, the ordinary rituals and artifacts of daily life.

Thus, as he describes the town and the townspeople and their fate, D'Orso's eyes fall on icons of violence, such as a sawed-off broom handle with an iron nut attached that is a throwing weapon used for killing rabbits in the countryside.

D'Orso brings a sharp edge to his narrative, showing us exactly where Rosewood fits in the history of race and violence in America. When he describes how Doctor and his fellow activists fought to vindicate the victims by bringing a claim for damages in Florida, we are reminded of the long history of racial violence in America.

Yet the point of the claim--and D'Orso's book--is to confront an ugly reality obscured by our most cherished myths and dreams.

"The simple truth," said a sympathetic legislator in the debate over the Rosewood claim, "is the whole world knew what happened in Rosewood, but we have buried it in our collective amnesia."

D'Orso's book is graced with the sure touch of a natural storyteller, the discipline of an investigative reporter and the word craft of a novelist. But D'Orso does not "novelize" the Rosewood saga--he understands the tale of suffering and redemption needs no hype.

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