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Sweet Home Rosewood: Lost In The Fire

Continuing a Seminole Tribune investigation which began in 1992, writer Charles Flowers revisits Rosewood, searching for the redemption of a Florida holocaust. First of three parts. (c) 1999

By Charles Flowers

ROSEWOOD - Like the battlefield it was, Rosewood holds its own secrets which are only felt at ground level. That's why we are behind the wheel of this Cadillac, rolling down highway 24 with Janie Bradley Black, a Miami woman whose life was shaped by Rosewood, even though the famous 1923 massacre of this black community happened long before she was born. She is coming home.

Going back to Rosewood after so many years seems like a fool's errand. After all, wasn't this issue settled in the great halls of Tallahassee, when a Senate committee passed a Rosewood Bill by the slimmest of margins, Gov. Lawton Chiles signed it into law and the massacre survivors were compensated for their loss?

Now Mr. Chiles, along with four of the nine Rosewood survivors, is gone.

So what? Wasn't the historical story told for all to see in the 1997 movie Rosewood? Or documented in the book Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood, both of which were reviewed in this newspaper?

Maybe not.

Mrs. Black and I are here to see who remembers Rosewood, and how it is remembered; to see whether the exposed bones of Rosewood have given up any of their mysteries. We come to see if Levy County's biggest story - which was left out of the official county history - still matters to anyone. Or if it still lies buried in the muck of prejudice and denial.

The White Memorial

If we are looking for a "memorial," we have come to the right place. There is a memorial sign planted here this spring, but it's not the one you might expect. Almost five years to the day after the State of Florida agreed to pay $2 million to Rosewood survivors and land claimants - all of them black - the memorial is to five white men of Rosewood, whose stories may be less well-known, but who obviously have fans with post-hole digging experience.

After living most her life keeping secrets about Rosewood, Janie Black is happy for any memorial.

"I don't have a problem with it," she says. "I just feel bad we couldn't put the same thing there for our loved ones."

There have been other attempts at memorials here, local resident Doyal Scoggins will tell you. But all have failed, hauled away like the green and white "Rosewood" signs that disappear faster than free samples at a Florida tourist trap.

This plastic sign, white with raised red and black letters, has survived the longest. It stands adjacent to Scoggins' fence-line, readable to visitors headed east from Cedar Key towards Gainesville. It honors the memory of John Wright, the Bryce brothers, Ernest Parham and W.H. Pillsbury - white men who most believe kept Rosewood from turning into a wholesale slaughter of the black population after violence flared in the first week of 1923. It makes no mention of the blacks who resisted, or of the families who fled, losing homes and land to the raging mob. There is no memorial to the blacks who died there.

It is unclear who owns the land. Possibly the State. Possibly each Florida citizen, and every Seminole Indian who trod a spur of the Trail of Tears to Cedar Key, owns a spoonful, or a grain of the blood-drenched earth here.

Maybe that's why the pilgrims come here. Pilgrims like us.

But there is more to the question of a memorial than land. There is the question of whether any new, and more fully representative memorial to the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, would stand. On this, Scoggins has local knowledge.

"I think it'd be all right if it was something substantial," Scoggins says, of the possibility of more equal-opportunity memorial. "If it was something you couldn't throw into the back of a pickup truck. They didn't leave that little sign alone."

Ghost Town Honey Man

Scoggins is a honey man, a beekeeper whose white-box hives line SR 24 about a quarter-mile after you have passed the much photographed (and often replaced) "Rosewood" highway sign. He also collects sassafrass roots for visitors such as Janie Black. Scoggins could also direct anyone in need of such to a freshly-dressed deer, possum, or raccoon. But "honey" is the word that hangs on his shingle.

For the laughably low price of $5, you can take home a quart of his golden sourwood mix, and taste in its flowers some that surely blossomed over the graves of most - but not all - of the official Rosewood dead. Seven of the eight reside within a honeybee's range of Wright's home, not counting Wright himself.

Rosewood is not a real ghost town. There is no town, just ghosts. And if you find them sleeping on this sunny Sunday afternoon in February, you find them at Doyal and Fugi Scoggins' home. It's the pale, faded lime-green gingerbread beauty once owned by John Wright, who lays with his children and his confused legacy, up in Shiloh Cemetery.

Janie is a love child of Otter Creek, the last surviving black enclave before you reach Rosewood in sparsely-settled Levy County. She now lives in Miami, where she helps organize Rosewood displays. She marched in this year's Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, and serves as historian on the Rosewood Heritage Foundation, which is also keeping Rosewood alive in an Internet website.

As the niece of Rosewood survivor Lee Ruth Davis, and the grand-daughter of unsung hero John Wesley Bradley, Ms. Black received the sum of $375 for her loss. It was more than she expected.

"There was a possibility we wouldn't get anything," she says. "I never figured anything about money. It was more for my children. I wanted them to know I was telling them the truth."

We pay a visit to her mother's grave in Bronson on the way to Scoggins' place. I remember searching for evidence of Rosewood in other cemeteries. But the stones have special meaning for her. The earth is charged with memories. For moral support as much as devotion, she plays black gospel music, which she hums in the car all the way down to Rosewood. She has chosen a sparkling blue-and-gold Senegalese wrap-around dress, with a gold head-piece, to wear this Sunday. Being around her feels like church.

At Scoggins' home, Janie sniffs the air like a deer. It is a seductive mix of azaleas, American holly and pecan trees, flavored by the whisper of smoke from an oak fire in the hearth, which Doyal pokes when he goes inside in search of a map of Rosewood.

"I don't know," Janie says. "I still get the feeling there was something the survivors never told us about Rosewood."

Burned Out, Scared Out, Bought Out

Scoggins returns with a map showing which black families may have owned major chunks of property in that part of Levy County in 1923., before a white mob, angered by the report of an assault on a young married white woman named Fannie Taylor, rampaged through Rosewood, killing at least five people and burning the town to the ground. Despite the compensation authorized by the Rosewood Bill, signed into law by Gov. Lawton Chiles on May 4, 1994, none of those families owns an acre today. They are truly dispossessed; first burned out, then scared out, and finally bought out.

"Not everybody (who was black) lost their property," Scoggins says. "A few were able to keep their taxes paid and kept it. A few tried to pay their taxes, and got it stolen from them. Some are luckier than others, I guess."

By "got it stolen," Scoggins means that the black property owners who came to the county seat of Bronson to pay their taxes after Rosewood, were chased away, and told never to return. When the taxes lapsed, others, including John Wright, bought the land for pennies on the dollar.

Scoggins lives at the epicenter of myths and realities that swirl in the 76 winters since John Wright ran his store for the almost all-black community of Rosewood. Wright and his second wife Mary were white folks, and that is the short answer of why their home was spared in the flaming first week of 1923.

If the date looks old, it's because it was long ago. Four years before Babe Ruth hit his 60, and 75 before Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs. Ten years before the teeth of the Depression sunk in. Decades before World War II, Korea, Vietnam. But not before World War I, the war that shaped Rosewood, although how specifically no one knows.

The Rosewood script Singleton followed painted Wright, played by Jon Voight, as a rear-guard soldier in the Great War. Ving Rhaymes is the mysterious Doughboy who still wears army clothes and rides into Rosewood on a horse like the cavalry. Or John Wayne.

Wright lived through Rosewood. By every other account, he did all he could to save Rosewood's black folk from the mobs, including sheltering women and children in his house. In return, he was smeared in Singleton's movie as a land-grubbing Massa, who sexually exploited his help.

His sturdy old house knows whether there's any truth to that, and holds all the survivor guilt any one man could use. John Wright was said to live out his years with loaded pistols on the coffee tables. Scoggins shows no fear of anyone.

"I thought about putting dead-bolt locks in all the doors," Scoggins chuckles like a gnome. "Then all they'd have to do is break a window. And the house is all windows."

In a sense, the $26 million movie Rosewood, directed by John Singleton, is a celluloid memorial to Rosewood. Singleton wandered from the facts of Rosewood, saying he wanted a strong, black "John Wayne" character so black audiences could cheer. The strategy backfired. The movie bombed. Unfortunately, some of the shrapnel fell on real people. It is hard to find anybody from Rosewood who thinks that Rosewood is any truer than the memorial out by the highway. It's just another shoot-'em-up "based on a true story."

The Wright/Scoggins house is featured in the movie Rosewood. But, Scoggins says, "They just came down here and took a bunch of measurements and left. They figured they could build it cheaper than move it."

After the movie, Scoggins wrote a letter in defense of Wright and critical of Warner Brothers, But he is more than a movie critic. He lives Rosewood every day.

On Singleton's portrayal of Wright as a philanderer motivated by greed, Scoggins recognizes the source as Arnett Doctor, the film's technical adviser who has been around Rosewood, sometimes poking through the ashes with his cane, for more than 20 years. The two are on a first-name basis.

"Arnett was disappointed that anybody would have bought up the property," Scoggins says. "He didn't consider that (Wright's) motives might have been benign. He might have been trying to buy the property for the people who owned it. He didn't get rich off it."

Commission From A Massacre

The same cannot be said of Arnett Doctor. He has very likely made more money off Rosewood than anyone alive, including the five survivors. First as chairman of the non-profit Rosewood Advisory Committee (dissolved, with any proceeds going to Doctor). Then he collected at least $25,000 from Warner Brothers as a technical adviser to the movie Rosewood. He also cashed in with St. Martin's Press, publishers of the book Like Judgment Day, which Doctor's cousin, Annette Shakir, said "reads like Arnett's autobiography." According to an agreement with the publisher, Doctor's organization received a share of profits from the sale of the book. As a Rosewood descendant, he also received a $6,071 payment from the state for his portion of the lost Goins estate.

But the real money started to pour in after the nine survivors began receiving $150,000 payments in late 1994. According to the late Wilson Hall and others, Arnett took a $12,000 cut from as many as seven of the survivors. The scheme was helped by the fact that Doctor, a convicted felon, was designated to deliver the checks to the elderly survivors.

The retired owner of a cleaning business in Tampa, Doctor 57, bought a house in Spring Hill, and became a media celebrity. He appeared on Oprah! and traveled as far away as Hawaii to tell his Rosewood story. He has declined to answer questions about the alleged kickbacks from survivors.

As the Rosewood Advisory Committee dissolved in acrimony in 1996, Doctor formed a new non-profit called the Rosewood Justice Center. Based in Spring Hill, it was funded in part from $100 donations to the Tampa premiere of the movie Rosewood. The Justice Center's purpose: to create a Memorial to Rosewood.

Five years later, there is still no Memorial.

But Doctor says he is working on it.

"At this time I am not at liberty to discuss the intricate details surrounding the geographical site and status of the Rosewood Memorial Project," Doctor wrote in a March 18 letter.

Homecoming Princess

Janie Black and I stop to visit the Reynolds family, the only blacks to buy property in the vicinity of Rosewood since the massacre. I first met Leonard and Mary Reynolds in the winter of 1992, when they were a little more green to these woods. Leonard was a retired cop from Washington, D.C., Mary a young grandmother who got in a quarrel at a Cedar Key day care center where she took her grand-daughter, Jomia Lee'Ne Harden.

It's seven years later, and Jomia has become an outstanding student-athlete at Cedar Key, making the varsity basketball team at 15, the Future Business Leaders, the Future Educators of America., the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She is this day running a bake sale to raise money for a trip to Holland where she hopes to shoot hoops and tour the land of Van Gogh and Rik Smits.

"I have been selected to travel to Europe," Jomia's fund-raising letter states. "This program will give me the opportunity to experience a different culture through an educational program dedicated to today's youth... I am a serious basketball player, and in Amsterdam I will also get the chance to compete with students from other countries, in tournament play."

Two more things: Jomia is as black as she was when the Reynolds family moved as close to Rosewood as any blacks have since 1923. She is also the school's homecoming princess.

Her proud grandmother Mary displays her own placque from the Chiefland Kiwanis Club, the same Chiefland where Leonard got into a 2-cent dispute with a white man over self-serve gasoline, and where, the previous evening, the Reynoldses traveled 20 miles up the road to hear Lizzie Polly Robinson Jenkins speak on the topic, "the real Rosewood."

"It was a great meeting," Mary Reynolds enthused. "There were cars parked for two blocks around the hall."

It was friendlier than the 1994 gathering there, attended by 20 hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan, led by Lake City Grand Titan Henry McIntyre. The Klansmen demonstrated in Chiefland, before heading down to Cedar Key to pass out leaflets. McIntyre said he chose Chiefland to protest the State's announced intention to award compensation to living survivors and descendants of Rosewood. If that's allowed, said the Grand Titan, then Seminole Indians should also protest their forced exodus from Florida.

Where has he been? More than 20 years ago, the Seminole Tribes of Florida and Oklahoma, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida Indians, each settled land claims with the U.S. government for land unlawfully seized more in the last century. With interest, the Seminole Tribe of Florida received more than $12 million in 1990.

Before leaving Rosewood, we buy a few pounds of smoked mullet from a shop in Rosewood. It joins Scoggins' honey and sassafrass in the trunk of the car, and I know I will remember this place as long as I taste it.

For Janie, it tastes like home. But "home" is still a strange concept for black people from Rosewood. It was lost in the fire. No money can replace it. No memorial can truly summon it.

NEXT: One survivor's history lesson.

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