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To Remember Rosewood, An Effort To Turn Its Last House Into A Museum

Only one house exists in an area formally known as the town of Rosewood, which in 1923 was a thriving African-American community until a dispute led to a massacre of at least eight people, and the town was burned and destroyed.

The house is now for sale, and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant (@gonzaleztennant), a visiting lecturer at the University of Central Florida, is part of an effort to turn the house into a museum and memorial for the African-American community that was chased out of the town. He speaks with Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson.

Interview Highlights

On Rosewood, Florida, and what happened there in 1923

“Rosewood was a historical African-American community. It was a place during the late 1800s and early 1900s were African-Americans owned their own businesses, owned their own homes at rates much higher than locally, regionally or even across the country. And so this community was the setting for a weeklong episode of violence that has become sort of commonly referred to as the Rosewood race riot or Rosewood massacre, the first week of January 1923.

“A group of oral histories collected in the ’90s from both survivors and descendants have updated our understanding of what happened, and it appears that the event was really sparked by the claim by a white woman in neighboring Sumner, Florida, that an African-American male had assaulted her. It turns out that this is perhaps a lie — it was a lie, to cover up an extramarital affair and an altercation she got into with that extramarital lover. This led to a group of local whites escalating hostilities over the following days, until it culminated really on Saturday. So this begins on Monday.

“By Saturday, the entire town has come under attack. Basically every black-owned building — homes, churches and so forth — are burned to the ground. Several individuals — at least six African-Americans and two whites — are killed, or sustained injuries that later lead to them dying during these altercations. And so by Sunday, so just under a week of this violence starting, of this lie being told, the entire town is no more. The local black population has been violently displaced, and they never return.”

On who John Wright was

“John Wright was a store owner. He was on friendly terms with many of his black neighbors. He actually harbored several families in his well, or well house, during part of that week, and he is one … certainly in a minority of the time, but one of probably two or three white families who were still living at Rosewood when these events took place.

“He did [help people escape]. And in fact, descendants and a handful of survivors, when they began telling this story in the ’80s and particularly the ’90s, they actually commemorated him and his family’s involvement in protecting some of the African-Americans, and in effect, without his actions, the death toll may very well have been higher.”

On why Wright’s home was left standing

“You know, I don’t know that I necessarily have a good reason for that. I suspect being white probably was a large part of that. It is possible that other white-owned structures survived those events, but have not survived to the present. It’s also possible that one or two of those structures may have survived to the present. And research is still ongoing on some of those sites.”

On efforts to turn the house into a museum

“I believe that this house — and in fact an adjoining property where I’ve done archaeological research the past few years, which contains one of if not the African-American cemetery — my vision would see that house converted into something like a local history museum that not only tells the history of Rosewood before and after the riot and the events of ’23, but also contextualizes those in sort of local, county history. Something like a museum of rural African-American history, so that it would do double duty. Those descendants still are active today, they maintain an interest, they have family reunions. The fact that they were tied to this place hasn’t ceased just because they no longer live there.”

On looking back at Rosewood today, and lessons it can teach

“This is actually a large portion of the reason I started doing research in Rosewood. I think that a lot of the social structures, the cultural attitudes that led to an event like a race riot … Rosewood, I would love to say that it was a unique circumstance. But it unfortunately was all too common for these sorts of large-scale public episodes of violence — whether they were race riots or lynchings — throughout the [1800s] and really into the mid-1900s.

“I think that the lesson for Rosewood today is that a number of the conditions — prejudice, but also social structures that can insulate the worst perpetrators of these sorts of crimes — while we don’t see these types of violence occur with the same frequency in the modern era, we do see a number of those structures and a number of those prejudices obviously surviving into the present. I would say a large portion of my research has actually tried to find a way to theorize or understand how something like a race riot nearly a hundred years ago still reverberates across time and impacts the present.

“Obviously with the descendants, that’s more clear. We can all sort of frame this in a way that brings it closer to home. What if our grandparents, what if our families had been violently displaced? How would that have fundamentally changed our experiences in the present, but also contextualizing it in much broader terms, so how have the legal and social structures of the 1920s changed, but also in part survived into the present? So there’s multiple ways we can attach a tragic event like this in the past with unfortunately America’s ongoing difficulty to deal with difference in the present.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(MathewTownsend via Wikimedia Commons)
(MathewTownsend via Wikimedia Commons)
The ruins of a burned African-American home in Rosewood, Fla., in 1923. Rosewood was a thriving African-American community, until a dispute led to a massacre of at least eight people, and the town was burned and destroyed. (Courtesy State Library & Archives of Florida)
The ruins of a burned African-American home in Rosewood, Fla., in 1923. Rosewood was a thriving African-American community, until a dispute led to a massacre of at least eight people, and the town was burned and destroyed. (Courtesy State Library & Archives of Florida)