(CNN) — They were victims of a racist mob, their families torn apart and dispossessed. But as survivors of the Rosewood massacre, they were united in grief, silence, and resilience.
In January 1923, a racist mob stormed the town of Rosewood, Florida, after a White woman claimed she was attacked by a Black man. In the massacre’s wake, at least six Black and two White people were killed and the once prosperous town was left decimated. Many Black families fled for safety, leaving their homes, land, and businesses behind.
Some of the survivors hid for days in swamps and nearby woods. Many families were separated, with historical records saying some women and children were placed on a rail owned by a White store owner and taken to Gainesville, Florida.
Rosewood was abandoned. Robbed of a more prosperous future, survivors started new lives elsewhere, created new identities, and many did not talk of the carnage again. Their descendants say they grew up watching their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles suffer in silence because of fear and distrust.
“The violence that destroyed a Black community, destroyed families, it prevented families from passing on their legacy and property to their kids and their grandkids,” said Maxine Jones, a historian at Florida State University who was the lead researcher on the Rosewood reparations case. “And no one was held accountable for the violence that took place during that week.”
The story of the Rosewood massacre lay buried for 70 years, Jones said, until the state of Florida passed a bill in 1994 to compensate survivors and their descendants. It offered $150,000 to survivors who could prove they owned property during the massacre and created a scholarship fund for descendants who attended in-state colleges.
Despite reparations, the trauma of a week of terror that began on January 1, 1923 has endured through generations.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre, and families gathered in Rosewood on Sunday for a wreath-laying ceremony to honor the survivors and lives lost. They are speaking at a series of centennial events at the University of Florida this week.
Here are the stories of three descendants:
‘I could just see the pain and the tears’
As a child, Gregory Doctor said he knew something wasn’t right when every year at Christmas the adults in his family would send him and other kids outside to play while they gathered in the house and cried together.
“When we were allowed to come back in the house, I could just see the pain and the tears,” Doctor said. “But you dare not ask the question of why, because it wasn’t a conversation for the kids.”
Doctor’s grandmother, Thelma Evans Hawkins, was a survivor of the Rosewood massacre. Hawkins, who was in her 20s at the time, escaped the violence with her siblings and moved to Pasco County, Florida, where the family was able to restart its mill. Hawkins settled down there, married a man who had also escaped from Rosewood and had two children.
His parents didn’t share the story until he was 19 when an article about the massacre appeared in a local newspaper, Doctor said. He recalls being upset that his family had never told him he was a descendant of a Rosewood survivor and heartbroken at what his grandmother endured.
“That was a secret that my grandmother did not share with us,” Doctor said. “It was a forbidden conversation.”
Doctor said he remembers Hawkins being depressed a lot. She would sit on her porch and sing hymns and cry. Hawkins was slow to trust people and carried a pistol everywhere she went, Doctor said. She passed away in 1996.
As an adult, Doctor has reconnected with the family members his grandparents had lost touch with after the massacre, he said.
“We grew up not knowing each other,” Doctor said. “So when we reconnected it was like meeting strangers.”
Doctor spearheaded the centennial events at the University of Florida this week. He hopes honoring the survivors and lives lost will help bring closure to families, he said.
“Let’s have this conversation so we don’t repeat history,” Doctor said. “We have like-minded people who still believe in racist violence.”
‘It was pretty sad to understand’
Growing up, Raghan Pickett learned about the Rosewood massacre at family reunions and other gatherings when relatives talked about the family’s history.
But Pickett, now 20, didn’t understand the severity of it all until the topic came up during a high school lesson.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ so this is what happened to my family?” Pickett said.
Knowledge of the massacre made her want to dig deeper. She learned that her great-great uncle, Willie Evans, had been visiting family in Rosewood for the holidays when he was forced to flee on a train with other relatives. A lot of details surrounding his escape are unclear, Pickett said, but she knows he settled in Sanford, Florida, with family.
“It was pretty sad to understand and to know what happened to your family,” Pickett said. “To see that your family had everything that they knew or owned, burned to the ground and having to relocate to new areas.”
Pickett said she believes the massacre was a financial setback for her family members who survived and the generations that came after.
“Personally, I think that hadn’t that horrific, horrific tragedy occurred, I think my family would be better off with their own land … owning their own property, having their own Black establishments,” Pickett said.
Pickett said the reparations bill of 1994 was a step in the right direction. As a direct descendant of the Rosewood massacre, she was able to receive a scholarship that fully covered her tuition at Florida A&M University. She is currently a junior studying political science.
However, Pickett also wants the state of Florida to return the land back to the descendants of the families who lost it during the massacre, she said.
Pickett said she hopes the centennial events in Florida will raise awareness of the massacre and recognize the strength and resiliency of her family.
“Many people like to sweep things under the rug when it comes to racial injustice,” Pickett said. “I’m so glad that we’re being acknowledged.”
‘He’s not going to talk about it’
Jonathan Barry-Blocker has vivid memories of spending spring breaks visiting his late grandfather, Rev. Ernest Blocker, in Sarasota, Florida, where they would go saltwater fishing, dig up fiddler crabs and pick fruit off the citrus trees in his backyard.
Barry-Blocker, who grew up in Orlando, recalled his grandfather being a stern man who loved to learn, fought for what he believed in, and never let any challenges hold him back. Rev. Blocker was an ordained minister and served as the pastor of an AME church in Sarasota.
Still, Rev. Blocker never talked about surviving the Rosewood massacre. Barry-Blocker learned of his family’s connection when he was 13, he said, after his father sat him down and told him his grandfather’s story of survival, but forbade him from ever mentioning it.
“He said, ‘well your grandfather was involved in the event, he is a survivor, but he’s not going to talk about it, so don’t ask him,'” Barry-Blocker recalled. “And so I never asked him during all the years he was alive.”
Barry-Blocker doesn’t know why his grandfather refused to discuss Rosewood, he said. However, he learned from research that his grandfather had applied for a cash payment after the reparations bill was passed but was denied. According to a 2020 report in the Washington Post, only nine living survivors received the full $150,000 payout. And 143 descendants of survivors received smaller payouts with only half getting more than $2,000.
“Because my grandfather, from what I can tell, could not prove that his parents owned or his grandparents owned any property at the time of the massacre, I’m assuming that’s why his application was denied,” said Barry-Blocker, who is a civil rights attorney and a visiting law professor at the University of Florida.
Barry-Blocker said he has little information about his grandfather’s escape from Rosewood. He only knows that Rev. Blocker was a child at the time and that he evacuated with his mother and siblings to South Florida. Rev. Blocker’s father stayed behind and the family was never reunited, Barry-Blocker said.
He said he often wonders where his family would be if they had not been forced to uproot their lives from Rosewood.
“Did we own land? Could we have owned land? Could we have amassed land? Could we have built wealth?” Barry-Blocker asked.
Barry-Blocker said he hopes that recognizing the 100th anniversary of Rosewood will inspire other states to consider reparations packages. He also hopes it encourages more families to speak out about racist violence and generational trauma.
“We’ve got to share our stories and understand that the living witnesses to such incidents are dying, they are leaving us,” Barry-Blocker said. “And if we don’t transmit their stories, we won’t know our legacies, in some respects.”
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