By CHARLES FLOWERS
Published on June 18, 1999
GAINESVILLE - At this meeting of the Rosewood Heritage Foundation, history comes with a buffet. The food is welcome for travelers, who come from all parts of Florida, and points beyond. Moved more by the story of Rosewood than the prospect of Publix ham sandwiches, a dozen of them gather at the Matheson Historical Center, a research center located in an old home here.
They are carpenters and computer experts, singers and silk screeners and humble fact-checkers, all proof readers to the truth of the Rosewood story which has been so often inaccurately foisted on an unsuspecting world that the truth becomes as individual as the creases in one old woman's hands.
With a grant from the Florida Humanities Council, they are producing a Rosewood traveling exhibit, which will make its way to Florida Memorial College in Miami later this month. They have already produced another electronic-age memorial. It stands in cyberspace as surely as wooden posts are sunk into the blood-drenched earth around Rosewood.
"It's astonishing to think that here's an event 70, 80 years ago that's been covered up. Lost, strayed and stolen," says Richard Newman, a consultant from the W.E.B. DuBois Institute in Boston, who has come the farthest. "I think what you're doing is historic. The story can be told, the lessons can be learned. Those who survived can be recognized. And those who were responsible can also be recognized."
It's not so easy to tell the thieves of Rosewood's history without a program.
On the Internet alone, there are at least four websites dealing with Rosewood. A serious researcher can also find the full 93-page report and 461 pages of appendices produced by a team of Florida historians to justify the 1994 Rosewood bill.
More casual readers can find what may be the core summary of that research and testimony from survivors and other expert witnesses in Special Master Richard Hixon's 11-page report to then -Speaker of the House Bo Johnson. It details the lawmaker's understandings - that there were some 20 black families in Rosewood in 1923, that a white woman's claim of assault led a posse to Rosewood from nearby Sumner, that at least eight people, 6 black and 2 white died in the violence that ensued.
Want to know why Florida paid off? Hixon lays out the legal basis for the claim: "There is no question that governmental officials were aware of the violent situation that existed during the entire week of January 1, 1923, that government officers assisted in the evacuation of the Rosewood residents, that after the destruction the government did not secure the area, that the residents of Rosewood sustained property damage, and that the justice system did not redress the injuries sustained."
And that is why, 71 years later, Florida taxpayers paid $2 million for Rosewood.
Hixon's report on the World Wide Web is linked to a sort of master list - the Rosewood Heritage Foundation's website.
There, on a site that credits the Seminole Tribune, you will learn that Rosewood was not an isolated incident. One week after the fires of Rosewood had cooled, leaders of an AME Methodist church in Madison were approached by an armed mob. And on Jan. 17, 1923, a 17-year-old black youth was lynched in Newberry.
But for the anatomy of the Rosewood lynching, you need not have a computer. There's a woman here who wears Rosewood on her back.
Lizzie Polly Robinson Jenkins, a retired teacher from Archer, has made a second career out of Rosewood. She has written a book about Rosewood. It's based almost entirely on the recollections of her mother Theresa and her aunt, Mahulda Carrier. It is called The Real Rosewood.
Ms. Jenkins also has a line of T-shirts she calls "A Walk Through Rosewood History." They feature silk-screened photographs of the Wright/Scoggins home (where black women and children were sheltered from the white mob), locomotive No. 3 (which later carried them out of Rosewood), conductors John and William Bryce, the old rail line, and the Archer Depot. The images, she says in her book, "will remind you that a memorable flame will forever burn bright in the hearts of those who loved Rosewood most."
Liz Jenkins also organizes day-trips to Rosewood from Gainesville, where, for $15, one can see the Wright home and some miscellaneous graves, and the "memorial" to five white men. One of the men named on that sign helped save her uncle Aaron Carrier from the noose on the same New Year's Day that Sam Carter was lynched. Another, who is not named, saved her Aunt Mahulda.
Ms. Jenkins believes it is important to honor these "behind-the-scenes whites" because she is sure that, without them, Rosewood could have been even worse for black people.
"They loved those guys," she says of her mother's and her aunt's fondness for John Wright and Sheriff Bob Walker. "Had they not worked so hard, my aunt would not have lived through Rosewood."
Robie Mortin - profiled in the last installment of this series - is one of five living Rosewood survivors, and easily the most accessible. She calls herself a "certified" Rosewood survivor. While she is still healthy and bright at 84, she is slowly yielding the floor to second-and third-generation inheritors of the legacy. People like Lizzie Jenkins, Arnett Doctor and Janie Black, all of whom speak publicly on the subject. Even Ernest Parham's daughter has taken on the legacy.The day before we meet, Lizzie is excited about meeting one of John Wright's nieces.
The details of Sam Carter's lynching were fleshed out by the testimony of Parham, who later married Walter Pillsbury's daughter. Parham lived to the ripe old age of 93, and credited Walter - who would become his father-in-law - with bringing the train that took women and children out of hiding to safety. The men, like Robie's father, and boys like "Big Baby" Evans, were on their own. Wright and the Bryce brothers also played important roles, and Lizzie says that Mahulda borrowed a black dress from Mary Wright to flag the train down with a lantern.
Liz Jenkins says the popular story - that Aaron was taken to the county jail in Bronson for safekeeping - is wrong. Aaron was taken all the way to Gainesville where he stayed for several months. Not even his wife Mahulda was told, because Sheriff Walker feared that she was being watched, and that neither Carrier's life would be safe if the mob that destroyed Rosewood found out where Aaron was kept. Years later, Mahulda returned to Levy County where she worked as a teacher and school principal. Lizzie Jenkins includes her aunt's pay stubs in her account. Robie Mortin remembers Mahulda Carrier as her teacher in Rosewood.
Further details, provided by the late survivors Minnie Lee Langley and Lee Ruth Davis, say Aaron Carrier had a rope around his neck when Pillsbury loaded him into the trunk of his car and drove him out of Rosewood. There were soul brothers even then.
"I, Too, Lived Rosewood" Lizzie's T-shirt reads. And it is a statement of defiance as much as authority. It is a definite attention-getter at the Cracker Barrel restaurant here.
As we chew our pancakes, a young man interested in Lizzie's T-shirt walks over, holding a blond boy on his hip. He is from Rosewood, or close enough that he knows what kind of boat it takes to fish the Waccassassa River (hint: it's neither wide nor deep), and he wears a gold-plated Confederate flag pin around his neck.
It is one of those moments that could be awkward if all the facts were known. It could be that one of his grandfathers tried to lynch her uncle at Rosewood. Or maybe another relation shot the eye out of the father of the other woman at the table, Janie Black, who is dressed as a Nubian queen this Sunday, in a black and gold outfit from Senegal.
Or, it could be they don't know one another at all. That's why people keep writing and talking about Rosewood even now, after it seemed to be settled. There's a blood connection between blacks and whites that is alive and well. Knowing it is part of the process of forgiveness, and healing.
Lizzie has painful memories of Arnett Doctor, whom she has not spoken with in two years.
"I had a real bad experience with that side of the family," she says. "They just disrespected and excluded my aunt. She was married to a Carrier, but she was not blood-related. She was not from Rosewood."
Neither was John Singleton, the director of the 1997 movie Rosewood. And it shows. The Los Angeleno may know the ghettos of L.A. (Boyz 'N the 'Hood was his first film). But he was lost in the woods when it came time to explain the interplay of blacks and whites in rural Florida in 1923. Critic Leonard Maltin called Rosewood "undoubtedly the most repugnant depiction of Southern 'rednecks' since Deliverance."
The baseless smear of John Wright was enough to make Liz Jenkins write a book. And while it will never compete with Singleton's movie - the movie's $26 million budget buys a lot of hype - at least it tries to tell the truth as she learned it.
"Rosewood," said lawyer Stephen Hanlon at the Tampa premiere of the Warner Brothers movie, "was a powerful story about the historic inability of African-Americans in this country to acquire capital in one generation, and pass that capital along intact to the next generation."
Maybe. But it was also about the ability of terrorism to flourish in the land of the otherwise free. And, as George Lincoln Rockwell once told Alex Haley, terrorism survives as an institution because it works.
Before it was brought out in 1992 from "collective amnesia," as Hanlon put it, Rosewood was a classic example of how well terrorism works to turn fear into silence and forgetting. In Florida's collective memory, Rosewood was barely able to be remembered by primary witnesses, and is still doubted by some skeptics.
Hanlon is the master of aikido where Rosewood is concerned. As head of the pro bono division of Florida's largest law firm, Holland & Knight, Hanlon did not take his prize in cash. But that doesn't mean there was no prize. Getting written up in the Wall Street Journal is pretty heady stuff for a Florida lawyer, and winning an unprecedented settlement for a disadvantaged group of Black Holocaust survivors was a major coup.
That was five years ago. What about now?
Now, what the white lawyer who came of age in the '60s termed a "love-in" between blacks and whites looks a little less lovely. Nine Rosewood survivors, including Robie Mortin, were compensated for their loss - paid $150,000 each. But most of those were charged a peculiar "commission" by Rosewood descendant and Hanlon ally Arnett Doctor. Hanlon pleads the lawyer's equivalent of the 5th Amendment: "attorney-client privilege."
Doctor, a convicted felon who had served time on a firearms charge, rode Hanlon's coattails to respectability, and beyond. While his criminal record would have made a bondsman look twice, Doctor somehow became the man who delivered more than $1 million in checks to most of the survivors. According to Wilson Hall, one of the nine, it was at the point of hand-off he took his cut: $12,000.
"He hand-delivered the check," Wilson Hall said of Doctor. "He came down here for that purpose."
Hanlon's own route to celebrity resembled a Machiavellian plot. It may have surprised others that when the stage was set for the big news, the only white guy left to talk to was him. How did it happen?
First, he juked would-be movie producer Michael O'McCarthy, who brought depositions of survivors Lee Ruth Davis and Minnie Lee Langley to him. A con man, Hanlon would say later.
Next, he left this reporter and his collaborator Peter Gallagher, in the dust, by getting us to agree not to publish our story in the fall of 1992 until he had the OK from higher-ups at Holland & Knight to take the case. Former Miami Herald reporter Lori Rosza was not so cooperative, and, in a front-page story fraught with mistakes - 26 "documented errors" according to one expert - she broke the story that Mrs. Davis and her cousin, Mrs. Langley, were taking their case to Tallahassee.
By the time the writer who identified those errors corrected them months later in another section of that newspaper - the now-defunct Tropic Magazine - the story had already gone out to 400 newspapers on the Associated Press wire.
That writer, Gary Moore, also spelled trouble for Hanlon and his team - if only because Moore had a 10-year head start, and interviews with some sources who had passed on. But Moore had problems of his own - an abrasive personality and the uncanny ability to turn off nearly everyone who tried to work with him.
Moore was combative, and obsessed with his version of Rosewood. Both were qualities he would share with another would-be historian: Arnett Doctor.
Moore had stumbled on Rosewood in 1982, and published a moving, yet teasingly sketchy account in the Floridian, the former Sunday magazine of the St. Petersburg Times. Moore's story was full of Biblical references, real and imagined happenings. But it got the attention of CBS-TV's 60 Minutes. Ed Bradley followed Moore's story, and his sources, to Florida, and put Rosewood on the air.
Robie Mortin watched the program when it was broadcast in 1983, but did not let on even to her family that it was her story.
In the 10 years between Bradley's report and Rosza's, many people who had lived during the Rosewood events were aging, or already dead. In a few cases, Moore had the only known interviews with them, including the most persuasive evidence of mass graves. But to access Moore's knowledge, you had to go through Moore himself. And that was like going through a she-bear for a pint of honey.
Moore alienated the team of historians authorized by the Legislature to document the Rosewood Massacre by first demanding a hefty fee, and then questioning each of their competencies. In this case, he was more than combative; he was borderline stalker.
He reportedly telephoned the universities where the historians received their degrees to see if there were any discrepancies in the academic credits they claimed. Such tactics did not endear him to the team. And Hanlon, who admits he could have used some of Moore's information to help make his case, instead put him on a plane back to Tupelo, Mississippi almost as soon as he landed in Tallahassee.
But there was a benefit. All of a sudden, Hanlon, who had not heard of Rosewood before O'McCarthy brought him sworn statements from Lee Ruth Davis and Minnie Lee Langley, who was months behind the Seminole Tribune investigative team, and a full decade behind Moore, was now the primary authority on the subject of Rosewood. Along with Arnett Doctor.
Just as Hanlon was cementing his position as the Atticus Finch of Rosewood, Doctor was locking up his role as the black authority on the subject.
"I'm not an individual who's looking for a status, or looking for a glory, because I feel that it's my good fortune to be able to serve my family," Doctor told Peter Gallagher in an April 1993 interview. "I can think of nothing greater than to be a servant of my family."
His growing role as a Rosewood authority was a little tricky for Doctor, since his eyes had been opened by Moore, after a childhood filled with admonitions from his mother, Philomena, to never mention the subject of Rosewood.
But Philomena had died, after, Doctor claimed, giving her blessing to his search for answers. Doctor, whose voice resonates like a church deacon's, had the gift of gab, and the ability to fill a room with survivors and descendants that impressed Hanlon. A lawyer likes nothing more than witnesses. Doctor seemed to have more than O'McCarthy. And he was black.
"It had to be someone who was black," state Sen. Daryl Jones (D-Miami) said of the importance of Doctor's role in lobbying for the Rosewood Bill. Jones was a leader of the black legislative caucus that helped push through the bill.
By then Doctor, who had retired from his janitorial business in Tampa, had time on his hands, and the backing of the non-profit Rosewood Family Advisory Committee, which he chaired. So, as Rosewood traveled from myth to documented fact at the hands of the historians in 1993 and 1994, Doctor traveled from outraged descendant to outraged lobbyist.
Fellow Advisory Committee member Gretchen Douglas, a middle school teacher in Orlando, watched the metamorphosis of her cousin with awe. She said she was surprised when she heard Doctor tell her, on a drive from Tallahassee to Orlando during the claims process. "Gretchen, as soon as the governor signs this bill, I'm going for myself."
"I just looked at him and said, 'I don't believe you.' To hear this come out of his mouth, I just couldn't believe it. That's so far from everything we had been working for up to that point. But that's exactly what he did."
Doctor's words were prophetic. The late Gov. Lawton Chiles' signature on the Rosewood Bill was still fresh on May 4, 1994 when it began to unravel. The bill called for $150,000 payments to be made to each living survivor of the Rosewood Massacre. After a two-year claims process, only eight had come forward. Robie Mortin, of Riviera Beach, who had still not filed her claim, would make nine.
Hixon said the total bill - including land claims and the scholarship fund - could be capped for $2 million. It was, like everything political, a compromise from the $7 million asked for, and, despite the support of Chiles and the Democrats, it barely squeaked through the Senate committee by a 14-11 vote. Two more "nay" votes, and Rosewood would have been only what Assistant Attorney General Jim Peters called it, "a sorry damned period in Florida history."
Instead, it was unprecedented The Legislature decided the state should pay for its own culpability (the Governor, Cary Hardee, should have sent in the National Guard; Sheriff Bob Walker should have told him the situation was out of control) in an event that had happened more than 70 years earlier, on the basis of aged witnesses who were mostly children when it occurred.
Doctor, who was 52 in 1994, had not been born at the time of Rosewood.
But that did not keep him from claiming nearly the equivalent of a survivor's share. The groundwork was laid behind closed doors, in a conference room at the Holland & Knight office in Tallahassee, packed by the survivors who could make it to the signing. Wilson Hall described what happened next.
Annette Shakir, the daughter of survivor A.T. Goins, told the group that the compensation should include extra payments to Doctor. And the old men and women who had waited a lifetime for the settlement, should do the paying.
"She said that since Arnett was cut out of it, she thought it would be a good idea if we all agreed to pay him something to bring him up to our level," Wilson Hall said.
She said $12,000 apiece sounded about right.
Hanlon declined to comment on the financial arrangement between Doctor and the survivors, citing "attorney-client" privilege. But it begs credulity to think that he did not know of it, as he was both attorney for the "Rosewood family" of claimants, and Minnie Lee Langley personally.
Robie Mortin did not get stuck for this alleged kick-back. Nor, finally, did A.T. Goins, Doctor's namesake. But if all the other seven survivors agreed, Doctor stood to benefit in the amount of $84,000. Added to the $6,071 he would receive from the state for his share of the loss of his family's land, Doctor could turn his "good fortune" into a sizable payoff - with book, film and lecture proceeds still to come.
No one except Doctor himself knows exactly how much he skimmed from the settlement. Arnett traveled with wads of cash and dressed in natty suits. He bought a new home in Spring Hill, a Hernando County retreat. But he was not through. When John Singleton rolled into Tampa two years later for the premiere of Rosewood - with copious credits to Arnett Doctor as technical adviser, Doctor shared the stretch limousine, and the limelight. Doctor made himself at least $25,000 as a consultant to the factually-challenged movie, as much or more than any survivor.
"I really think Arnett convinced people he was a survivor," Annette Shakir said. "He's convinced he knows what happened at Rosewood because he thinks he was there."
Doctor, who moved to a new home in Spring Hill after the bill passed, decline to comment.
"I am not discussing these things," he told the Tribune, referring all questions to lawyer Hanlon.
Meanwhile, the non-profit organization formed to give advice to the "Rosewood family" dissolved in acrimony. No problem. Doctor would form another, the Rosewood Justice Center, funded in part by $100 "donations" to a premiere of the movie. The Justice Center, he claimed, would build a memorial to Rosewood. More than two years later, Doctor says he is "not at liberty to discuss the intricate details" of his plan for a memorial. Robie Mortin scoffs at the possibility that will ever happen.
The film, which Robie Mortin calls "the second Rosewood Massacre," was also premiered before a live audience on the Oprah! show. Lizzie Jenkins accompanied Doctor to the screening as watched as he pulled a $100 bill from a roll to tip the limo driver.
"There are just so many 'raw dog' stories circulating about Arnett," Jenkins said.
Also on that Oprah! program was Michael D'Orso, whose book on Rosewood, Like Judgment Day, was published less than a year earlier. Because of an agreement with the publisher, even more money was funneled to Doctor.
"Arnett's no angel," D'Orso said two years ago when he learned that Doctor had taken money from survivors. "He's absolutely, completely dedicated to the cause of Rosewood as he sees it."
The fine details of history are being hotly debated, not only in Doyal Scoggins' front yard at Rosewood, and at Sugar Hill Cemetery in Riviera Beach where more Rosewood survivors are buried. But also in exhibits and on Internet websites devoted to Rosewood.
The slickest of these is Warner Brothers' own site for the movie Rosewood. There, in a surreal medium called QuickTime, one can hear director John Singleton, and four of the movie's actors - Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Esther Rolle and Jon Voight - talk about Rosewood. Sound bites from the stars.
Singleton himself, who was blamed by survivor Wilson Hall and author D'Orso for using fake events and characterizations to heighten racial violence, and especially to give black audiences something to cheer for - talks about how future Rosewoods might be prevented. Note to director: tell the truth.
The most surreal moment may belong to Rhames, who played a fictional, John Wayne-character in the movie, which departs from fact to create an even more violent episode than Rosewood. Besides Robie Mortin, the film was disowned by three other survivors from the Hall family, whom Wilson Hall says, were not allowed on the set. Hall believed it was because Doctor knew Hall would not stand for the portrayal of his mother as John Wright's mistress.
"In the search for the truth, one will experience pain," Rhames says. "If the truth will set you free, then it's worth going through the pain."
Rosewood teaches that truth has costs. But Rosewood the movie is no search for the truth. The truth, Singleton admitted to this reporter, just got in the way. That's why this pain that Rhames describes is just overkill.
Fortunately for us all, voices of the real Rosewood are rising in response. They do not sing of easy explanations, or what might be gratifying scenes of payback. But they drown out the Rosewood pretenders. And their truth may, finally, set us free.
Charles Flowers has reported the Rosewood story since 1992. His Seminole Tribune articles on the subject (some written with Peter B. Gallagher) have won awards from the Minority Press Association and the Native American Journalists Association.
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