Ruin and Redemption
Reviewed by John Egerton
Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996 pp. 20-21
Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood by Michael D’Orso (Grosset-Putnam, 1996, 373 pages).
What happened in the backwoods village of Rosewood, Florida, a tiny hamlet of black sawmill workers, in January 1923 was not at all uncommon in the South of that time, it is horrifying to contemplate now.
A white millworker’s wife in the neighboring town of Sumter was attacked and beaten in her home. She claimed that her assailant was black. An escaped black convict was thought to be at large in the area. Quickly, a posse of white men was formed, and they marched on Rosewood.
Finding no trace of their quarry they butchered one
man and severely beat another. Over the next several days, the swelling mob burned most of the homes in Rosewood and killed an undetermined number of residents, perhaps as many as a dozen. At least two white men were killed by defenders of the village.
The Rosewood massacre made headlines for a few days, and in the temper of the times, the stories played up the white deaths but said little of the losses suffered by the blacks. To the extent that state law enforcement and criminal justice official showed any concern for what happened in this remote north Florida village, it was strictly to suppress any prospect of retaliatory black aggression.
The silence that fell over the ruins of Rosewood lasted for almost sixty years.
Then, purely by coincidence, a St. Petersburg Times reporter named Gary Moore found the threads that led him into the piney woods of Levy County, and eventually into the presence of Arnett Doctor, a St. Petersburg liquor store manager whose elderly mother had witnessed the siege of Rosewood as a child.
Moore’s reconstructed account of the incident was published in the summer of 1982, and was followed a few months later by an Ed Bradley segment on “60 Minutes.” For the next ten years. Arnett Doctor worked compulsively to complete the story by seeking out all the survivors and descendants of the destroyed village.
Finally, in 1992, Doctor came in contact with some people who would prove to be new players in the resurrected and still-unfolding drama of Rosewood. One was a freelance hustler from California by the name of Michael O’McCarthy.
Another was Steve Hanlon, who handled public-interest cases for one of Florida’s most prestigious law firms. Two others were members of the Florida state legislature–Republican Miguel De Grandy, a Cuban refugee raised in Miami, and Democrat Al Lawson, a native of north Florida and chairman of the legislative black caucus.
Easily the most amazing coincidental match-up in this widening circle of interested parties was the meeting of Arnett Doctor and attorney Martha Barnett, a colleague of Steve Hanlon’s–she’s the daughter of a white physician in a little town near Rosewood, where Doctor had also grown up. In the way that small-town Southern kids often did, even in the age of segregation, they had known each other, even played together. Now, thirty years later, they found themselves on the same side in a collective effort to exhume the buried truth of the Rosewood community.
Add to this heady mix of human chemistry the gradual emergence of a captivating group of people with ties to Rosewood (including almost a dozen survivors of the assault) , and all of the lawyers and legislators working for or against an official gesture of apology and compensation to the victims (among them House Speaker Bolley Leroy “Bo” Johnson), and you begin to get a picture that almost seems like a fictional flight of fancy or a made-for-TV movie script.
But it’s all true, and D’Orso’s sure-handed treatment of the fragmented but richly textured material combines the skills of investigative journalist, historian, and dramatist. Almost nothing makes better reading than forgotten history that explodes into the present with a dramatic new twist. Recognizing that this is just such a rare gem of a story, D’Orso spins it out to maximum effect. Like Judgment Day is a classic example of superior nonfiction writing: more compelling than most histories because it is so personal and dramatic, more powerful than most novels because it is true.
In the spring of 1994, the Florida legislature passed a two million dollar claims bill compensating citizens who could be certified as injured parties in the 1923 Rosewood massacre. “The long silence has been broken,” said Governor Lawton Chiles. He vowed that “this blind act of bigotry” would never be forgotten.
Thanks to the efforts of the handful of Floridians, black and white, who make up the cast of real-life characters in Like Judgment Day, Rosewood certainly won’t be forgotten anytime soon. And thanks to Michael D’Orso’s splendid book, the ruin and redemption of a little town that time almost forgot are now a part of the permanent record of Southern and American history.
John Egerton has written about the South for more than thirty-five years. His many current projects include writing a series of profiles of Nashvillians for The Tennessean, the city’s daily hater.