As it gets closer to winter, we in Florida reflect on what makes us different from the rest of the country. Spurred on by scenes of snow and cruel blizzards we sit on porches in shorts and reminisce of times before, nostalgic flashes of beachside February mornings or sweltering Christmas Eve’s where the temperatures rose above 80 degrees.
I had been enjoying my usual festivities, such as gleefully laughing at my increasingly colder comrades, when I noticed a derailment begin to take place. People I knew and respected were discussing this whole Alt-Right business and what they were supposed to call it, rather than the benefits between bolt action rifles or assault rifles; various online outlets were ablaze with the most nervous of pearl-clutching and could not stop endlessly screeching about how America’s end had come at the hand of some Russian created ideology.
Panic had seized the hearts of the West and North of this continent like a cottonmouth on a fat frog. Militants were patting themselves on the back, saying the Nazis had finally come while progressives hailed this as unnatural perversion of the American civic spirit.
I could hold my breath no longer, no amount of Sailor Jerry’s or calming midnight walks could ease the venom slowly lurching in my throat. Fangs began to take shape, my eyes split, and argument upon argument hit the page waiting to be unleashed on the unsuspecting public.
But it occurred to me that perhaps the fault was not a theoretical one. For many Millennials, and even some Gen-X’ers, the current batch of xenophobia was all that lurked in their memory. Perhaps in these urban centers so distant from my own territory, they simply hadn’t seen anything like this before. Every major city had Nazis, sure, but it’s not like they held both the power to write the laws and enforce them.
The American progressive, and sadly even many militants, seemed overwhelmed. In one night they’d woken up and realized all was not as it seemed. They assumed Trumpism was a new menace conjured from the depths of hell to combat America’s glorious march to membership in the Union of Scandinavian States.
And they wonder why they get laughed at.
Rather than beat my head against a wall I want to tell you a story that will stay in your heart for a long time to come, one that will whisper to you when you smell campfire smoke or hear the lonely cries of wind whipping through forgotten groves.
I want to tell you about a place.
A place called Rosewood, Florida…
“I was born in 1923
In the Florida forest were the rose meets the trees
My mama named me Jesus for the air we breathe
I was born in 1923.”
From the sweltering Mississippi Delta to the cultured stones of Savannah, to be in the South is to step into an entirely different country than the United States. For one, the history is entirely different. The North was settled by plucky farmers or religious zealots and the Children of the West fled more traditional existences to carve new worlds suited to individual tastes out of freshly cleared Native territory. The South instead was populated by the war-like peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the English Upland, and came from a herding culture with its emphasis on courage, strength, self-sufficiency, and violence that still rules the region today down to a chemical level:
“Nisbett and Cohen followed up their findings with a study that looked at the differences between the emotional and physiological responses of Northern and Southern white men when faced with an insult. They had both Northern and Southern college-age men come into the lab under the pretense of taking part in an unrelated study. They were asked to take a questionnaire to a room at the end of a long and narrow hallway, and as they made their way down it, a confederate to the experimenters would bump into the subject, and call him an ‘asshole.’…
During this altercation, the subjects’ emotional response was recorded, and afterwards their levels of cortisol (which is released from arousal and stress), and testosterone (which increases when gearing up for something that will involve aggression and dominance) were measured…The cortisol levels of insulted Northerners rose 33%, even less than the control Northerners who walked down the hallway without being bumped at all. But the cortisol levels of insulted Southerners went up more than double that: 79%. The testosterone levels of Northern increased by 6%, but went up 12% for Southerners.”
The land drunk in beauty and adorned with spanish moss was shaped by an aggressive stance towards the world and a wariness towards outsiders: kinship and reputation carrying more weight than any written code or federal ruling. Authority was based on the ability to kill or dominate those around oneself, and right or wrong that ability decided who called the shots and who would serve. One’s reputation decided who had what rights and the slightest insult was enough to earn someone an early grave.
One struggles to imagine a worse place for an entire people to be regulated to the status of property.
For a Black person to “step out of line” meant one’s honor had been called into question, and any who deviated from the herdsman’s violent culture was severely punished. To be too kind towards Black folks was to be ostracized, seen as a “nancy” and to be expelled from the bonds of kinship Southern folk depended on. Black folks were regulated to the status of social antitheses, everything a white was supposed NOT to be.
This attitude, an obsession with upholding one group identity while violently rebelling against one deemed the living embodiment of the Jungian Shadow, lead to many deaths, more torture, and enough tears to overflow the banks of the Suwanee River.
“My father settled on the cotton rail
Most of folks fled when the forest failed
Well with the great migration and the trumpet wail
My father settled on a cotton rail.”
Of course the Civil War changed all that, right? Hadn’t all those nice laws been passed to end the bloodshed?
Ever since Sherman blazed his way down to Atlanta, folks from outside the South-East have come against a system more in line with the mafia than any civil society as we might recognize it. Campaigns and laws will be worked around, ignored, subverted, deliberately misunderstood, lied about, fooled with, torn to pieces, selectively heard, or suddenly forgot as if by trauma when lacking the necessary personal clout or regional attitude behind them. Reconstruction, an attempt to undue the patriarchal and racist Southern society and rebuild it to Northern tastes, was a massive failure undone the minute guns were no longer pointed at Southern faces. In a country supposedly “free” Black folks were barred from voting, barred from owning choice property, barred from any substantial legal representation and were often killed and tortured simply to pass the time.
It’s no wonder than that many folks, Black or white, chose to flee such an oppressive atmosphere. In Great Migrations or small, many poured out of a land they considered beyond help, backwards, and a threat to their physical safety. Entire guides were written to help Black motorists find lodging and stay out of dangerous areas, death as much a modern reality as when the Klan hunted the night on horseback.
“My uncle was a preaching man
Held a good book in his right hand
He blessed my body and my father’s land
My uncle was a preaching man.”
Even amid horrors the South was still beautiful, and many souls could never tear themselves away from her charms. Places like Rosewood, Florida were oases of joy and tranquility in a sea of derision and danger. Mornings were filled with the giggles of children and sizzle of frying pans, nights echoed with music and prayers before dinner. Flowers, as per its namesake, were everywhere and every house was painted bright, beautiful colors. Home to 344 black souls, Rosewood boasted three churches, a school, a Mason Hall, a turpentine mill, a sugarcane mill, a baseball team, and two general stores.
Life was good, as good as it could be in a region built on violence and racial segregation. Self-sufficiency allowed Rosewood to be on good terms with the residents of nearby Sumner, an almost entirely white town, and the two traded freely. Free from the yoke of constant fear folks like Sylvester Carrier, a man described as an avid hunter, skilled music teacher, and expert marksman, weren’t afraid to refuse their allotted place as second class citizens.
Rosewood was bountiful and didn’t need to beg. It defied the roles ordained for it by Southern society and could even be seen as a shining example of how Southern values, treasured enough to kill for, might to extend to every aspect of it’s society.
For this grave sin they would pay dearly.
“The day I was born the church burned down.
People came from miles around.
They found my uncle hanging upside down
The day I was born the church burned down.
And they say that people were screaming and the say that they were calling his name.
But there was no gun and rose when the white man came.”
Fannie Taylor was a young woman in nearby Sumner whose husband left early in the morning to work at the turpentine mill. When the sun rose, as locals told it, a white lover would sneak in to Fannie’s residence and proceed to spend the day educating the bored housewife in the carnal arts. One day, amid a furious argument, her lover beat her and stormed off in the general direction of Rosewood.
Her husband due home later that day, Fannie needed an explanation for her bruised face. To tell her husband the man she’d been fucking while he was away had laid hands on her was simply out of the question.
So she told him a Black man did it.
Word spread fast and a posse was formed, rumors of an escaped Black prisoner circulating as the probable culprit. Simple assault quickly turned to rape, and a Black man named Sam Carter was seized at random and tortured until he “admitted” he helped hide the escapee. He was killed and strung up as a warning to other Black folks that such “crimes” would not stand. The mob ran into Sylvester Carrier on the road home and warned him to leave town. Sylvester made it clear he would do no such thing as the area was his home.
Somehow his words got twisted and fed to the New York Times as not only condoning the beating and rape but somehow saying such things would continue. Enraged, a white lynch mob marched on Sylvester’s home with the intent to slaughter as many souls in Black skin as they could. A shootout occurred, wounding many would-be lynchers, killing Sylvester, and buying enough time for the children he’d been protecting to flee into the woods.
A Black man had not only dared to stand up against white Southern society, but held his own against it, giving his life that others might live. Sylvester was an example of the values Southern culture was built on and should have a statue in Rosewood today to honor his legacy and bravery
But there is no statue, nor will there ever be one, for there are no hands left in Rosewood to build it.
“My brother died on a railroad track
Fourteen years old, built like a stack
Oh they burned his feet and whipped his back
My brother died on a rail road track.” – “Rosewood Jesus” by Fire Next Time
The idea that Black folks had dared to raise an armed fist against whites, no matter the details, was unthinkable in Southern society. Crowds descended on Rosewood; Wilson Hall, who was 9 at the time, remembers car lights from incoming white men visible for miles. The resulting bloodlust upon their arrival was insatiable.
Houses were doused in kerosene, lit on fire, and anyone who emerged was immediately killed. Where once there had been flowers, now only flames could be found, trees once danced around after school turned into makeshift gibbets and became adorned with swinging bodies. Screams pierced the air and echoed across the woods to ears hidden deep within the brush, the carnage going on well into the next morning. Any Black folks found on the road were killed and Slyvester’s cousin was tortured, forced to dig his own grave, and shot in the back to ferret out a fugitive that had never been there in the first place.
By the next day nothing was left. Rosewood had been burned off the map. Those that survived walked through miles of swampland to friendly faces, hiding among what communities they could and vowing never to speak of that long night ever again. The lynchers and their descendants went unpunished, faced no jail time, and when the white editor of a local paper tried to print a story on the massacre in the 1980’s, she was told in no uncertain terms she did so at her own peril.
Let me repeat that: the descendants of these people will still kill you if you dare to bring it up.
To this day, the official body count is unknown because the murders were never reported. All that remains of Rosewood are trees lengthened by ash and grown thick like cemetery oaks. A lone marker sits on State Road 24, the only testament to the once thriving community that did its best to get by on the terms allotted to it and was punished for living too well by the ways of the region.
Where Black folks cowed they might be picked off one by one, but for refusing to kneel and daring to dream they paid the ultimate price.
The South has millions of stories like Rosewood, dark histories told only to knowing ears and desperately downplayed by tourism boards as things of the past. While the atrocities of
legal lynch mobs the police are finally becoming widely known, the more subtle dangers that litter the region for people of color are still widely unacknowledged
“My wife and I drove through Kissimmee on our way up to Orlando,” I told a co-worker after I’d had a particularly fun weekend off. “I really like the place, kind of a big city but not quite yet. Right amount of lived in and built, you know?” Her face became pursed, pulled in, eyebrows slightly jumping.
“What part of Kissimmee?”
“Oh I don’t know. Not deep deep, maybe on the outskirts. Something close enough to go to restaurants but far enough on the outside to shoot guns in my back yard.”
She nervously laughed. “I don’t think that would be good for your wife.”
“Ah, she’d be fine. Besides it’s such beautiful country out there–“ A cold hand gripped my shoulder as darting eyes leaned in to whisper.
“No, I mean…because…since she’s mixed.“
The America that razed Rosewood to the ground for daring to exist is still with us: Blacks folks still fear Sumter, you cannot be Black and found in Two Egg after dark, and I personally work with a Black woman who regularly drives to Alabama from Central Florida with her own gas cans to refuel, and a loaded pistol in her glove box.
We are shocked at Trump’s calls for a Muslim registry, aghast at Republican screams for mass deportations, and horrified at Alt-Right references to “subhumans” as if these are new developments, unnatural tumors on the American body politic. Ask any Black person about some of the more harrowing encounters with racism they’ve lived through, and you’ll find the most nightmarish desires of crypto-fascists to be “just another Tuesday in Palatka.”
Nothing surprises us down here, because we’ve seen it all. Every time some idiot mentions how they “can’t believe this is happening in America” I double over with laughter.
What America have you been living in?
The civic joys and pleasures you hail as cornerstones of your liberalism are nothing but empty party favors to folks down here, and we have no illusions as to how little our “rights” matter. They only exist as long as you don’t piss off the people running the show, and when you do, no amount of legal wrangling or talk of “the Constitution” will save you from indefinite detention or an “accident” that couldn’t be avoided. Rosewood was razed not for crimes committed but for daring to imagine itself an equal, for believing all those words spoken in D.C. were actually true.
Trump and the Alt-Right aren’t talking about anything that hasn’t already existed for millions of Americans, and no laws were needed to get them to happen.
We need to realize while certain parts of the system are in decay, many others are working just as designed. Even if Trump were impeached tomorrow, they could continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Elect whoever the fuck you want, the local Sheriff still wields the power of life and death, and you can be damned sure the Mayor won’t risk an upcoming election by telling him to “take it easy.” Nor will he get too vocal when the Sheriff’s cousin hits his wife again or “accidentally” shoots that Plack boy who was “prowling” in the wrong neighborhood.
Alt-Right, Nazi, Klansman, or Fascist, all that matters is they exist and they breathe among us. Rosewood was burned not just by ideologues but by people who knew its residents on a day-to-day basis; they were unrepentant, as were their children, and their children, and it is they who fill the school boards and police departments of the country today.
The great tragedy of Rosewood is this: it is not some far-off crime, but one relived everyday. That hatred and death may shapeshift to suit the times, but that it is ever-present. Like a Southern Dachau, its eerie remains are a warning of the feral, violent nature that held sway in this country and still does today.
Tearful cries can be heard when the moon is right and no cars are on the road in what used to be Rosewood. Who can tell the Spirits that dwell there times have changed? The crimes of this nation, this region, are still etched in the spirit of this land, silent dreams of peace becoming shattered glass left to heat up in the noonday Florida sun.
One of those shards now exists within you.
Welcome to Rosewood.
“It has been a struggle telling this story over the years, because a lot of people don’t want to hear about this kind of history. People don’t relate to it, or just don’t want to hear about it. But Mama told me to keep it alive, so I keep telling it … It’s a sad story, but it’s one I think everyone needs to hear.” – Lizzie Jenkins, executive director of the Real Rosewood Foundation and niece of the Rosewood schoolteacher