Janie Black is a mild-mannered woman who works at a community center in North Miami-Dade County. She is something of a matriarch for the many, young and old, who offer her a smiling greeting. By initial appearances, Black is quietly enjoying her golden years. Black, however, is on a mission.
Born Janie Bradley in the early years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era, Black has dedicated her spare moments to telling the story of what happened in what was supposed to be her hometown 90 years ago this month.
Black is the daughter of Nada Bradley, who as a young boy in January 1923, saw his world turned into flames when his community was literally burned to cinders.
Bradley lived in Rosewood, the African-American community in Levy County that was literally wiped off the map after January 1923 when hundreds of rampaging whites, responding to a white woman’s disputed claim of abuse by a black man, converged for murderous attacks and combed the countryside while survivors hid in the woods and swamps.
As a descendent of the survivors of the Rosewood Massacre, Black does not shy away from questions about the town, its people, and what happened during those cold winter nights so many years ago. For her, opportunities to talk and teach others what happened in Rosewood are welcomed.
Black participated in a conference in Orlando last November that focused on the tragedy, for example, and locally has spoken to students at Holmes and Coral Park Elementary schools, Ruben Dario Middle School, and more.
“Our side of the family always talked about Rosewood,” says Black. This had a lot to do with the fact that many of her relatives stayed in places such as Otter Creek, which is in the immediate vicinity of Rosewood, she said.
In fact, her father never left Levy County, even becoming deputized by the local sheriff at one point. He was the only black man she knew with a gun in Otter Creek, said Black, adding, “Jim Crow didn’t apply to me because of my father’s status” as a trusted employee of one of the larger employers in the area.
DECADES OF HIDING
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Black was about six years old, she moved to Miami to live with her paternal grandfather John Wesley Bradley, who left Rosewood after the massacre. Black’s grandmother was Virginia Carrier, sister-in-law of Sarah Carrier, who was killed when a mob of white vigilantes attacked her house trying to kill her son Sylvester.
Black’s aunt Lee Ruth Davis, who was a child in Rosewood when the attacks started, first “broke” the story” about Rosewood. Gary Moore of the St Petersburg Times contacted Davis in the early 1980s for a story about Rosewood that would eventually be printed in 1982.
“It upset her,” said Black. “It made her nervous that people could find out” who she was and where she was living.
The reaction was not unique, Black says, as many survivors changed towns and some even changed their names. Lonnie Carrier, for example, was a little boy when he witnessed the explosion of rage and death. What he saw shook him so deeply that he changed his name from Carrier to Carroll. Black explained that Carroll, as a cousin of Sylvester Carrier who killed some of the men attacking his home, feared reprisals.
Moore’s article created a new awareness and interest in what happened to Rosewood. About a year after the St. Petersburg Times’ Rosewood exposé appeared, the late Ed Bradley told the story on the CBS News 60 Minutes program. Bradley’s father, Ed Sr., also was a Rosewood survivor, says Black.
“Ruth was the first that would talk about it” publicly, says Black. Black said her aunt ironically was first contacted by Moore during the height of the riots after African-American motorcyclist Arthur McDuffy died from injuries at the hands of white police offers during a 1979 traffic stop in Miami, where Davis had settled by then.
Even though she had always known about Rosewood, and traveled frequently to the area to visit with her family in places such as Otter Creek and Cedar Key, Black was frustrated with how time and nature worked to hide the place where her family had once lived.
“I had trouble finding Rosewood through the brush and that bothered me,” she said.
From the desire to be able to “find” Rosewood, some members of the families decided to organize their efforts. The Rosewood Foundation was established in 1995 as a way to keep the memory of what happened alive.
Among those who established the foundation was the late Annette Goins Shakir, whose father Arnett T. Goins was a cousin of Black’s father. Goins Shakir was one of those who drafted the concept that gave birth to what has become the Traveling Rosewood Exhibit which is permanently based on the campus of historic Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, where she was an alumnus and professor.
For Black, the exhibit at Bethune-Cookman, speaking tours and even field trips to Rosewood and Cedar Key are necessary to help keep the memory alive, especially with only one survivor still living. “It was being denied,” says Black who has encountered some lingering hostility from a few white residents still living there.
For her, however, there is no bitterness. “‘Don’t be bitter — that happened before your time’” says Black. “That is what I was taught.” Her family made it a point, she says, to show her “that not everyone is bad.”
She notes the example of John Wright, the town’s lone white resident at the time of the attacks. “My grandfather was a neighbor of Mr. Wright who hid children,” says Black. “There was never any animosity.”
Natisha Hawkins, a junior at Krop Senior High School, said she did not know very much about Rosewood. “I heard the name ‘Rosewood’ but I didn’t know the story,” she said. As to whether someone like her would see any connection with what happened at Rosewood given the generations that have passed since 1923, “I think it is relevant,” she said.
ECHOES OF TRAYVON
She sees the recent killing of Trayvon Martin, a former classmate of hers, and the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, as proof that the lessons of Rosewood still have not been fully learned in the United States. The time and distance removed from Rosewood “doesn’t mean it can’t happen again,” she observed.
Still, “A positive impact can be made if students make (the Rosewood Massacre) known,” Hawkins said. “It might help inspire positive change.”
Kelvin Williams, a math and science teacher at Krop who has worked with Black on Rosewood initiatives, noted the importance of young people such as Hawkins knowing about Rosewood and helping survivors such as Black tell the story. “I am a firm believer in understanding the past to affect the mindset of the future,” says Williams.
Black is grateful for such support. “We need to give proper due to the people that were there,” she says. “They need to be mentioned, recognized.”
The task of telling the story of what happened to her family and their neighbors 12 years before she was born is a duty for her. “If they give me two minutes, I will tell them about Rosewood.”