Segment from Paying for the Past

Recognizing the Rosewood Massacre

The town of Rosewood was situated on the gulf coast of Florida, about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville. It was an African-American community with all the trappings of a typical Southern town. But in 1923, Rosewood was destroyed by racial violence. Lizzie Jenkins, a Rosewood descendant, walks us through the harrowing story that was passed down in her family. And Nathan talks with Stephen Hanlon, the lawyer who represented the Rosewood survivors in 1994, about how Florida became one of the first states to pass a reparations bill.


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Nathan Connolly: Lizzie Jenkins was just five years old when her mother told her about their family’s connection to Rosewood.

Lizzie Jenkins: My mom was an eighth grade scholar, which was equivalent to a PhD. My mom wasn’t afraid of anything. I’m just like her too.

Nathan Connolly: It was a story passed down to her mother by Mahulda Gussie Brown Carrier, a family member who lived through the tragic events that unfolded in the first week of 1923.

Lizzie Jenkins: The most important thing she wanted was for me to authenticate what people have been saying. She does not want the history forgotten. She does not want it repeated. Make sure I inform everybody. Keep it alive.

Nathan Connolly: Rosewood was situated near the gulf coast of Florida, about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville. It was an African American community with all the trappings of a typical Southern town. For a half-century, the people of Rosewood lived a steady, peaceful existence. But in 1923 the community was thrown into racial turmoil by a false accusation, one that was common during the Jim Crow era. It all started when a white woman from the neighboring town of Sumner claimed a Black man had assaulted her.

Lizzie Jenkins: James Taylor’s wife was having an affair. A married woman, she was married to him with one son. We understand that she was tired of cheating on her husband and she wanted to take a break, dissolve the relationship. The young man she was keeping company with, her white lover, did not want to and a fight ensued. As a result, she ended up black and blue, well, bruised. She had to explain to her husband what happened to her. This particular morning, she needed an excuse and the easiest thing for her to say when he got home, saw her, the bruises in her face, she said to him, “I was assaulted by a Black man.”

Lizzie Jenkins: He became furious. He was enraged. So he made contact with the men at his workplace that worked for him, the white men, and told them what she said happened, allegedly happened. Of course, they too became enraged because a Black man touching a white woman back then was an unpardonable sin.

Nathan Connolly: By sheer coincidence, the KKK had held a rally in Gainesville the day before and as word of the assault spread, James Taylor gained an army of angry white men at his disposal.

Lizzie Jenkins: So the KKK or the mob was already in Gainesville, already fired up, ready to kill anything Black that got in their way. So he invited them to Sumner and of course they came. The newspaper said approximately 400 to 500 mobsters came to Sumner to help James Taylor catch the person who assaulted his wife.

Nathan Connolly: Lizzie says hostilities were also driven by a personal feud between James Taylor and Sylvester Carrier.

Lizzie Jenkins: Sylvester Carrier was a Rosewood resident that didn’t play anything, my mom said, but a piano. People thought he was hostile. He was not hostile. He was protective of his women. He hated James Taylor and James Taylor hated him. So for James Taylor, this was an opportune time for him to get even with Sylvester.

Nathan Connolly: On the second day, tensions culminated in a deadly shootout. The lynch mob had descended on Rosewood in pursuit of Sylvester Carrier, targeting a house where he was rumored to be staying. Little did they know, Sylvester was armed and ready.

Lizzie Jenkins: When they got to the house, what they didn’t realize, Sylvester had recruited his men, his cousins, and friends to be there Tuesday night to help him fight. They were there, hidden in the dark when they came in. They were met head-on with gunfire because the first thing they did, Poly Wilkerson who was a deputy sheriff deputized in Sumner and Henry Andrews, both of them were haters. They were so bold. They walked in and kicked the door in where Sylvester and his mom lived and his dad. When they did, he shot and killed both of them. My aunt was in the house and all of the women had gathered there because that was like a place where they went when there was trouble in the community.

Lizzie Jenkins: They went to Aunt Sarah’s house because she was the pillar of the community and they were talking to find out what was going on. So women were there in that house and children. They yelled after he killed those two and they were shooting in the house too. Somebody in the house said, “Aunt Sarah’s been shot.” That was Sylvester’s mom. And then Sylvester yelled out to everybody, “Shoot. Everybody, shoot.” And they started shooting. It was more white men killed than those two. Nobody knows the count, but they were killed. The women inside the house heard them yelling, “Oh hell. I’m hit. Help.”

Nathan Connolly: With at least two dead and many more injured, the lynch mob staggered back to Sumner in defeat. But they soon reassembled and for the next few days, hundreds of whites rampaged through Rosewood as Black residents escaped with the help of Sheriff Bob Walker.

Lizzie Jenkins: The sheriff worked, my mom said, 96 hours straight in an effort to get them out of Rosewood safe. He worked hard with the train conductors in Cedar Key. He begged them. He pleaded and all of them told him no. “No, no. Bob, we cannot jeopardize the lives of our family by getting involved.” However, on day three, late day three, the Bryce brothers from Brightsville said, “Bob, we’ll help you but it has to be after midnight, early morning.” So on day four, early morning between 4:00 and 5:00, the train came from Cedar Key, stopped in Rosewood, picked up the men, women, and children, the elderly hiding out. Many of them was at John Wright’s house and in his barn and in his store hidden out until the train got to Rosewood.

Nathan Connolly: By the end of the week, all of Rosewood had been burned to the ground. While the incident made national news at the time, it soon faded from public memory. So for the next 70 years the story of Rosewood was kept alive in the hearts and minds of the surviving families.

Lizzie Jenkins: It stayed a secret because they did not want, the whites did not want the truth known that they had lost the battle. They were embarrassed. They didn’t want it to be known. Every Black Rosewood survivor/descendant will tell you this behind closed doors. I think I’m the only vocal person. But if I talk to them about it or if they talk to me, “Yeah, Liz. That’s true. We know that.” But they don’t talk about it. But I do.

Nathan Connolly: Decades later in 1992, Stephen Hanlon was looking for a new case to take on as the head of the pro bono division at the largest law firm in Florida. He only had two criteria.

Stephen Hanlon: The one was the wonderful index and the other was impossible index. If it hit real high on both of those, then I was really interested, and Rosewood went off the charts on both of those.

Nathan Connolly: In the early 1990s, a man named Michael O. McCarthy reached out to you about a potential case. Can you explain who he was and how he introduced you to the Rosewood massacre?

Stephen Hanlon: Michael O. McCarthy was a hustle. He had claimed that he had signed up the last two survivors of the Rosewood massacre, Lee Ruth Bradley Davis in Miami and Minnie Lee Langley in Jacksonville, and that he heard about me. He came into my office one day telling me that story, that he’d signed up the last two survivors of the Rosewood massacre and that he tried to sell that story in Hollywood but they said it really needs a lawsuit so that we can have the conflict in the ’90s instead of in the ’20s. So that’s why he wanted to do a movie. I didn’t have any interest in a movie, but I did have interest in the case.

Stephen Hanlon: So I went down with him and I met Lee Ruth Bradley Davis in Miami and she was a very strong and impressive woman to me. Then I went over to Jacksonville and met Minnie Lee Langley and that’s when I knew I wanted to take that case because she was a truly … She was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met in my life. She vividly remembers what happened and she has a really compelling story to tell.

Nathan Connolly: Ms. Langley sounds like she was really instrumental in convincing you to take it on. I’m curious what your sense was of the challenges of the case just as it was outlined in the law. In other words, what was, to your mind, such an impossibility about a case like the Rosewood one?

Stephen Hanlon: It was a 70-year old case. Witnesses had obviously died and/or disappeared. I knew that we would have no chance in a court, state or federal. But I did know from previous experience in litigation about the process in Florida that is called a claims bill. They have several grounds for such a claim. One of them is that the state has a moral obligation to pay somebody something. I thought that was a great legal test. I thought that sounds like I can make that one here because my clients were witnesses to unprosecuted murders and the state had an obligation to restore my clients to justice, compensate them for what they lost, and restore their land to them, and prosecute and bring to justice the individuals involved.

Stephen Hanlon: The governor was specifically on notice of what was about to happen in that town in time with all the Klan and everybody else surrounding it and he knew about that … I think my recollection is six days in advance and he just went off hunting. And then nobody ever prosecuted. They had an obligation in 1923, ’33, ’43, ’53, ’63. So that was the basic theory of the case.

Nathan Connolly: The Rosewood hearing was open to the public. Paint a picture for me in terms of what the scene looked like when you arrived at the Capitol Building on the first day of the hearing.

Stephen Hanlon: Well, there were hundreds of people that were in this large room in the bottom of the Capitol Building. There was a stage in front of that where the two hearing officers and myself and my opponent, Jim Peters, and our witnesses had tables, kind of traditional courtroom scene, but not in a court. There was national and international press. We all walked over there under heavy police security and were ushered in a back room where my opposing counsel, Jim Peters, had asked me, “Can I come in and talk to these folks?” I said, “Of course you can.” And he did. He was very gracious about it. He told them he was proud of them, but he had an obligation to defend the state.

Nathan Connolly: Wow. Throughout the whole process, you were careful to use the term compensation instead of reparation. Why? What do you think the difference is there?

Stephen Hanlon: First of all, compensation is the word that’s used in the statute. So I didn’t want anybody saying, “Well, we don’t have that.” If I said reparations, they would say, “Well, we don’t have a statute for reparations. We got one for compensation, if you want to seek compensation. But we don’t have a statute for reparations.” So I had to use the word compensation. But everybody knew what was going on. I mean it was reparations by another word.

Nathan Connolly: Jim Peters, the defense lawyer representing the state, what were some of his arguments against compensation?

Stephen Hanlon: Well, he tried the statute of limitations but that didn’t work because there is no statute of limitations on capital murder. So that argument didn’t go very well. Then Jim dug up some witnesses somewhere who came in and testified, “Well, the Black people just egged them on to do it.” That was kind of silly. But I mean it’s all he had. Plus the complaint that these are Florida government officials and they’re not here to defend themselves. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not a legal argument that would work. He had a very difficult job to do and he did it with dignity.

Stephen Hanlon: After Minnie Lee Langley went on, she was first. I mean you could hear a pin drop when she testified. I mean she’s right there with Sylvester Carrier, right inside the front door. He’s got his left arm around her and he’s got his shotgun in his right hand. He’s holding the end of it with his left hand. The constable breaks through the door and Sylvester just blows him away. And then a second deputy constable comes through and Sylvester blows him away. Minnie Lee Langley is there to tell that story. I mean it’s just stunning, that story. I always knew she was going to be my lead witness.

Nathan Connolly: In spite of how long there was in terms of years between the initial event and the case being heard, the Rosewood Bill did in fact pass in 1994. The Rosewood Bill stipulated that elderly survivors who experienced a massacre would receive $150,000 and that a $500,000 fund would be set up for the families and descendants who could prove that they lost property. Did the families think that this was a fair amount?

Stephen Hanlon: Well, the key question is did Arnett Doctor? Because he was the leader of the family. I went around Florida to where these folks lived. I went to their AME churches on a Sunday and spoke. The one thing I said was, “You want me to ask for money. I’m going to ask for money. We don’t just want a memorial or a plaque. I’ll ask for the money, but be careful what you ask for because money and families do not get along well together. It’s going to present problems.” Because no amount of money could compensate these people for what had been taken away from them.

Stephen Hanlon: But this was the first time. This was the first time. So you know when you’re the first one that goes through the wall, you’re not going to get as much as the next person. It was announced. Arnett and I were in the Capitol Building and he found out that number on that settlement. He went through the roof. He said, “No way. I’m not going to take it.” I said, “Well, think about it overnight and I’ll think about it overnight and let’s talk about it tomorrow.” We went out for lunch the next day. I said, “Arnett, I’ll go back there and tell them no deal if you want me to, but I’m not going to do that until you go down to St. Petersburg and tell your uncle that he’s not going to get that $150,000.”

Stephen Hanlon: After lunch he said, “You know what? Why don’t you go back and tell them? I don’t want to have anything to do with it. You tell them.” That’s what I did and we got it resolved. The money meant nothing to the survivors, nothing. They gave it to their church. They gave it to their kids, et cetera.

Nathan Connolly: As for the $500,000 fund, Lizzie said the bill made it difficult for descendants to prove their families’ connections to Rosewood. But to her, it was more about recognition than compensation.

Lizzie Jenkins: Some folks got $200 or $300, but to them it said, “We did you wrong.” I worked hard in helping with the family trees because in order to get compensated you had to show proof that you were connected. I worked really hard on my family tree. I did not get one penny, but I was rewarded. When I say rewarded, I was happy to know that we accomplished respect and recognition. You did us wrong. You need to pay. I think it’s important to recognize people if you destroy their land, their home, their property. I think they need to be paid. We here in the United States pay other people if we destroy their property.

Lizzie Jenkins: Everybody is paid except Black people. We’re not paid for anything. This country basically was built on my ancestors’ muscles, shoulders, and blood-soaked tears. Reparation is a small token of appreciation, very small. I think more people need to step forward and require that we are compensated. I can’t do it by myself. I find people afraid to talk about Rosewood. I have cousins right here in Archer. They are still afraid to go to Rosewood and tell me how crazy I am for going there. And I go there and sit on the porches and see the kids eat ice cream and watch the white people pass by. I’m not afraid.

Nathan Connolly: Lizzie Jenkins is a retired schoolteacher and the founder and president of the Real Rosewood Foundation. Stephen Hanlon also helped tell that story. He’s a retired public interest lawyer currently serving as general counsel for the National Association for Public Defense.

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Paying for the Past Lesson Set

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Though the American Civil War concluded over 150 years ago, its effects still resonate in the social, economic, and political lives of millions of Americans. At the conclusion of the war, the federal government made efforts to rebuild the lives of former slaves. Though many of these “Reconstruction Era” efforts were well-meaning, they faced stiff opposition from former slave owners and politicians who did not want to enfranchise African Americans. As a result, many freed slaves faced generational socioeconomic hurdles preventing upward mobility.

21st century politicians and economists are still grappling with how to best address significant disparities in wealth and racial equality. One frequently discussed idea is the payment of reparations to descendants of former slaves. The goal is to properly fulfill the failed promise of Reconstruction Era policies and fight against systemic and historical barriers to advancement. However, these policies come in many different forms and are contentious for many Americans.

This lesson focuses on different aspects of reparations throughout American history. The goal is to force students to confront questions about how to best address ongoing disparities of race, wealth, and justice. How has the United States tried to address these questions in the past? Why has reparations endured as controversial issue in American politics today?