(RNS) – As each new year approaches, Ebony Pickett looks back to the mournful history of the massacre that began in the littleknown majority-Black enclave in Rosewood, Fla., on Jan. 1, 1923.
Pickett, descended from residents of Rosewood, feels the legacy of the massacre in personal ways. She was one of the ﬁrst students to receive a Rosewood Family Scholarship from the state after Florida passed reparations legislation a quarter century ago.
Pickett used her scholarship to attend Florida A&M University and earn a bachelor’s in occupational therapy in 1998. The mother of seven, she is now a part-time occupational therapist at two charter schools.
As the call for reparations for the Black community in America has gotten louder in recent years, the story of the Gulf Coast town of Rosewood, and Florida’s measures to repair the harm done, has begun to be noticed.
On that ﬁrst day of 1923, a white woman in the neighboring community of Sumner alleged that she had been attacked in her home by an unidentiﬁed Black man, according to a 1993 report written by ﬁve scholars for the Florida Board of Regents. As the news of the woman’s report spread to the white community, violence broke out. Many of the town’s Black residents fled into the swampy woods in record-cold winter temperatures. A Black church was burned, and then six days later, a mob of at least 100 white people “gathered and watched” the burning of the remaining structures in the Black part of Rosewood.
The report notes that a grand jury found “insufﬁcient evidence” for prosecution despite the fact that “The question of how many people died remains, however, and it may never be solved.”
Two years earlier, in Tulsa, Okla., the district known as “Black Wall Street” was destroyed by a mob after a Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman. The centennial of that massacre will be commemorated this spring. Rosewood had a much smaller Black community, but it, too, had Black businesses, as well as a private school and a baseball team.
“This is a travesty that’s happened to my family,” said Pickett, now the president of the Rosewood Family Reunion and director of choirs and the young people’s department at New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lacoochee, about 100 miles from Rosewood.
“We were thriving, we were surviving, and we’re able to have the government to actually give us reparations,” said Pickett.
“In America, as an African American, I do feel that reparations are deﬁnitely warranted,” she said. “Rosewood is a great example that it can deﬁnitely be done.”
“MET THE TEST”
Sherry Sherrod DuPree, a Florida historian who has spoken widely on the Rosewood incident, noted that the word “reparations” was not used during the discussions seeking compensation. The special master to the Florida House of Representatives concluded in his 1994 ﬁnal report that “the claimants have met the test for an equitable claim bill by showing that a moral obligation exists to redress their injuries.”
“They did not use the term `reparations’ because a lot of the people that were in authority thought it was a dangerous term,” DuPree said.
The reparations have not undone what happened almost 100 years ago. All that remains in Rosewood today is the house where a white merchant lived and a historical marker.
Nevertheless, the descendants of those who suffered or survived that violence believe that reparations that resulted from the lost land and way of life can be an example for others.
The state’s special master on the Rosewood case recommended payments of $150,000 each to survivors, which were given to nine individuals, and the establishment of the state scholarship fund for descendants.
The Rosewood Family Scholarship has since beneﬁted more than 290 recipients and currently pays a maximum of $6,100 an academic year to direct descendants who apply and verify their family connection.
Older descendants of Rosewood warn that, even if they are successful, struggles for reparations take time and perseverance. There were several versions of the Rosewood compensation package before the ﬁnal one was signed into law.
And its passage did not pave a smooth path for everyone. Survivors no longer qualiﬁed for beneﬁts such as Medicaid when they received the money and ended up paying medical costs out of pocket. Students who lived or chose to attend schools out of state couldn’t get the scholarship or had to pay higher tuition prices if they returned to the state for college.
Nevertheless, Rosewood family members still say their efforts could be mirrored by others.
Maxine Jones, the principal investigator for the report to Florida regents, said she also thinks the results for the Rosewood survivors and descendants could influence new initiatives, such as a suit ﬁled this fall about the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa. She quoted a friend’s comment about the compensation they received.
“’Rosewood was Reparations 101,”’ she said. “Rosewood was the model.”