(CNN) — In the years after World War I, Black people were thriving in the central Florida town of Rosewood when a White mob driven by racial animosity decimated the entire community within days.
Rosewood became the site of a horrific massacre 100 years ago, during the first week of January in 1923. This rural town was one of several Black communities in the US that suffered racial violence and destruction in the post World War I era. The acts of racial violence resulted in the loss of economic opportunity and inequality for generations of people of color.
There were about 200 people living Rosewood, a town in Levy County located about an hour southwest of Gainesville and about 9 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, at the time of the massacre. Mostly Black families lived in Rosewood and were landowners, farmers and worked at a nearby sawmill.
Violence broke out on January 1, 1923 when a White woman from the nearby town of Sumner claimed she was assaulted by a Black man, historians said.
A group of people in Sumner, which had a mostly White population, began searching for the alleged and unidentified man, turning into a violent mob that lasted for a week. At least eight people were killed, including six Black people and two White people. Homes, businesses and churches were burned and Black residents fled into the swamps, later settling in Gainesville and other cities.
Maxine D. Jones, a historian at Florida State University who has the lead researcher on a study about the massacre commissioned by the Florida legislature in 1993, said the massacre wiped out the entire community and was hardly discussed by survivors and historians for years.
“The story was buried for almost 70 years,” said Jones. “We retrieved this story, and it’s important to remember the past, we can’t forget about the past regardless of how ugly it is.”
State lawmakers have described the massacre as a “unique tragedy in Florida’s history” and recognized that no one was held accountable for it.
In 1994, then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles signed a bill to compensate survivors and their descendants. Florida House Bill 591 is considered a model for reparations for Black Americans.
The legislation said local and state officials were aware of the conflict in Rosewood “and had sufficient time and opportunity to act to prevent the tragedy, and nonetheless failed to act to prevent the tragedy; an entire town was destroyed and its residents killed or fled, never to return.”
Authorities “failed to reasonably investigate the matter, failed to bring the perpetrators to justice and failed to secure the area for the safe return of the displaced residents,” the bill reads.
The bill awarded $150,000 payments to survivors who could prove they owned property during the massacre and set up a scholarship fund for their descendants who attended state colleges.
At least 297 students have received the Rosewood scholarship since 1994, according to a 2020 report by The Washington Post.
“Money is often how we make it up to people, it’s one of the ways you try to make someone whole,” Martha Barnett, a retired Tallahassee-based attorney who was representing about 12 Rosewood massacre survivors when the 1994 bill was passed, previously told CNN. “Money for their property, money for the lost opportunity to live a good life. They lost the opportunity to have their first, second generation of kids benefit from the middle class life they had created.”
The massacre was dramatized in the 1997 film “Rosewood” by director John Singleton and only a historical marker remains in what was once the thriving town of Rosewood.
Direct descendants of the families who once lived in Rosewood led the fight for reparations in the 1990s and more recently, have been involved in the centennial events taking place this week. They continue working to reclaim their families’ legacies.
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