By KAREN VOYLES
SUN STAFF WRITER
Published: Wednesday, May 5, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2004 at 1:30 a.m.
Rosewood – A decade ago, after months of sometimes rancorous debate in the Legislature, Gov. Lawton Chiles signed into law the precedent-setting compensation bill for the survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre and their descendants.
The $2.1 million package was the state's way of apologizing for what Chiles referred to as a "blind act of bigotry."
On Tuesday morning - 10 years to the day after Chiles signed the reparations bill - Gov. Jeb Bush was in Rosewood to dedicate a Florida Heritage Landmark roadside marker. The cast aluminum sign memorializes those who died and those whose lives were forever altered by the racially motivated violence that decimated the town.
"This marker will insure that Rosewood is remembered," Bush told the hundreds who turned out for the event about 40 miles southwest of Gainesville. Bush said the marker was one more way to insure that "The tragedy of Rosewood will be remembered, not repeated."
Among those on hand for the dedication ceremony was Allenetta Robinson "Robie" Mortin, 89, W. Palm Beach. She was 8 years old when at the first sign of trouble, her father put her and a younger sister on a train headed to Chiefland, where an older sister lived.
"My father knew there was trouble coming and he got us out of here," Mortin recalled. "This was a good life here in Rosewood. I could walk the woods all by myself and we had a good school - I could already read and write real well before we left."
Until Tuesday, Mortin said her brief return visits to Rosewood were sad events.
"Today this is a real joyful time for me," Mortin said following the hour-long dedication program.
Her memories of Rosewood and its violent end were among those collected by scholars from the University of Florida, Florida State University and Florida A&M University, who were directed by the Legislature to research Rosewood. The 1994 Legislature's decision to pay compensation was largely based on the final 500-page report.
Researchers determined that a white woman accused a black man of assaulting her, setting off a week of violence by white men against the residents of the predominantly black town.
When it was over, two whites and five blacks were dead and all but one building in what had been a town of at least 100 residents had been burned to the ground. Those who could escape left with little more than the clothes on their backs. They left behind their community school and the churches and the homes they had established as well as the businesses they had owned.
The incident was rarely even whispered about until the 1980s when a few reports surfaced in the news media. Slowly, survivors and descendants of victims and survivors began finding each other and talking. What became clear was that calls for help at the time of the violence went unheeded by elected officials.
And decades later, when survivors approached the Legislature about compensation, some lawmakers balked, alleging that paying any claims would set off an expensive precedent.
The $2.1 million finally appropriated by lawmakers was divided among many, including up to $150,000 for each survivor, as well as $500,000 set aside for a scholarship program. Joining Bush on stage was one of the scholarship recipients, Edrica Hawkins. The pre-law student from Florida A&M University wanted to say thank you.
"If there is one thing I could say to the victims, it would be that they did not die in vain," Hawkins said. "They will live on in the hearts and minds of students like myself."
The words on the marker were written by Lizzie Jenkins of Archer, whose aunt was a school teacher who escaped from Rosewood, and by Professor Maxine Jones of FSU who helped author the report sent to the Legislature. Jenkins said her motivation for working year after year on issues related to Rosewood is multifaceted, including honoring those who, like her aunt, were scarred forever by Rosewood "and spent a lifetime adjusting to a history they did not create."
The marker is on the south side of State Road 24 in front of what is now a privately owned home that was the only building spared in the 1923 violence.
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