ROSEWOOD, FLA. -- There's not much left of Rosewood that wasn't burned to the ground 70 years ago, not much left but pines, palmettos and road kill.
There's a lonesome gas pump, an RV park seized in a drug bust and a couple of homes set on sandy lots back in the swampy hammocks.
And there's Mary and Leonard Reynolds, the first and only blacks to live in Rosewood since that week in 1923.
"I just hope we're not living on top of the graves," Mary Reynolds said. "That would be too much."
Like the town, first reduced to rubble and then slowly absorbed by the swamp, the story of what happened in Rosewood has long been hidden, a piece of American history that many people, some of them still living, would rather forget. For in Rosewood, a mob of white men went on a rampage and burned, mutilated and killed every black they could find -- until there was nothing and nobody left.
"This was a period of time when racism was very strong in the United States, very out in the open," said R. Thomas Dye, a historian at Florida State University who is studying Rosewood. "This was the era of Jim Crow. For a black man even to say something to a white woman, that was an excuse to be lynched. ... And it didn't just happen in Rosewood. Florida had the highest per capita lynching in the United States."
Seventy years ago, long before the Reynoldses retired from their jobs in Washington and came to Florida, Rosewood was a real town, with at least one school, three churches, two stores and a Masonic Lodge. Rosewood's inhabitants, estimated to number between 100 and 300, were almost entirely black.
But that was before a young white woman named Fannie Taylor in nearby Sumner said a black man assaulted her on New Year's Day 1923.
Over the next week, a mob of white men, variously estimated to number between 100 and 1,000, composed of locals and men from as far away as Georgia, descended on Rosewood. Newspaper accounts at the time described the scene as a "race riot," with lynchings, shootings, mass graves, mutilations and burnings.
Survivors recall that blacks were hunted down like animals through the thickets. Whites were shot dead when they tried to enter black homes.
"The negroes escaped from the house after two of them had been shot to death by the whites who rained bullets on the structure until their ammunition was exhausted," read a news account of the event. "... A negro was shot to death...on the graves of his mother and brother when he is said to have refused to tell his white captors the names of those ... who fired on the white men."
Finally, the entire town was burned to the ground, except for the home of John Wright, a white merchant who sheltered black residents from the mob.
"A foul and lasting blot has been placed on the people of Levy County, in which Rosewood is situated," the Tampa Times editorialized.
But the story of Rosewood did not make the history books; indeed, the incident appeared to sink into obscurity, much as the smoldering town sank into the swamp.
That is all beginning to change. One by one, the survivors have been stepping forward to speak of what they saw 70 years ago.
The black survivors of Rosewood and their descendants have joined together to ask the state of Florida, through the legislature, to acknowledge that the atrocity occurred; to admit that the state failed to protect the black residents; and finally, to pay.
"We want restitution for the mayhem, the murder and eradication of our families," says Arnett Doctor, whose mother, then 13-year-old Philomena Goins, survived the attack by hiding in the woods and then jumping aboard a slow-moving train which had been sent to rescue her and other blacks.
A bill to compensate the families and to erect a memorial in Rosewood died in the Florida Legislature last session. The survivors and their descendants have vowed to try again this summer. The heads of the Cuban and black delegations are the bill's sponsors.
"It is only fair and just that these people be given recognition for their pain and suffering and compensation for their losses," says state Rep. Miguel DeGrandy, one of the sponsors. "What happened in Rosewood was horrible. I don't know another word for it."
Nobody knows how many people died in Rosewood. Documented deaths number a handful. But some say the toll was much higher. They contend that dozens died, both black and white.
Doctor says he has located 13 survivors and about 400 of their descendants. Some of the surviving family members have been holding reunions since 1985. This year's gathering is scheduled for Washington in July.
Doctor says the group wants compensation for the loss of property and life. He will not say how much. The new bill also requires that Florida pay for the college education of all descendants of the Rosewood victims.
"This is important," Doctor says. "This is not something that happened 200 years ago. This was 1923. There were laws on the books to stop this from happening. The state was on notice, the federal government was on notice. But no one, no one stepped forward to protect U.S. citizens."
Doctor points to the fact that a black man visiting from New York was torched near Tampa on New Year's Day of this year, allegedly by three white men. "What happened in Rosewood continues to this day," Doctor says. "People have just got to learn."
Their houses and businesses burned, the black residents of Rosewood never returned to live in the town. Until the Reynoldses, both now 65, bought land and built a house here, no blacks ever moved into the village, which comprises only a few dozen homes. Indeed, there are no blacks living in nearby Williston, Inglis, Yankeetown or Cedar Key, a funky tourist, retirement and fishing village on the gulf. The only black children in the Cedar Key school are the Reynoldses' grandchildren.
Leonard Reynolds, a retired Washington police officer and bodyguard for former mayor Walter Washington, says he and his wife knew nothing of the Rosewood massacre until a few years ago.
Mary Reynolds, a retired drug counselor, says, "When we used to have black friends down from Chiefland, they always wanted to leave before it got dark. They didn't want to be in Rosewood after dark. We always asked, but folks wouldn't say why."
What exactly occurred in Rosewood is not completely clear. Many of the survivors were children during the incident and are now in their seventies and eighties. The new legislation includes a request for $50,000 to pay for historical study.
"Things happened out there in the woods," said Robin Raftis, the white editor of the Cedar Key Beacon. "There's no doubt about that. How bad? We don't know."
Raftis says for years she has heard whispers about black body parts kept in Mason jars around Levy County, parts supposedly hacked off during the Rosewood incident.
"For years, people have known I've been collecting stories," Raftis says. "So I said, 'Okay guys, I'm opening the closet with the skeletons, because if we don't learn from mistakes, we're doomed to repeat them.' "
But after Raftis re-published journalist Gary Moore's first stories about the Rosewood slayings a decade ago, she received notes that read: "We know how to get you and your kids. All it takes is a match."
The incident began with 16-year-old Fannie Taylor's accusation that she was molested -- some say raped -- by a black man, an assault that some survivors have said was actually carried out by her white lover. Yet it didn't take long for a posse of white men from the sawmill camp in nearby Sumner to take matters into their own hands. The posse, using dogs, headed for Rosewood, searching for the alleged assailant, a black convict named Jesse Hunter, who had escaped from a road crew.
Peter Gallagher and Charles Flowers, two reporters for the Seminole Tribune who have spent years researching the events, dug up the Jan. 2, 1923, issue of the Gainesville Sun, which stated: "The negro believed by many to be guilty was making for Gulf Hammock, one of the most dense forests in Florida. ... The entire county is aroused and virtually every able-bodied man has joined in the search."
The white men killed a black man named Sam Carter, who the vigilantes believed had helped Hunter escape.
Dye, the young historian from Florida State University who is researching the Rosewood incident, says that Carter was probably first tortured, then shot and finally lynched. His body was hung out for all to see in Rosewood.
"They strung him up in Rosewood as a symbol, a warning," Dye said. "I don't know exactly what they did to him, probably tortured him. I've heard rumors they mutilated him and that there are body parts of Sam Carter all over Levy County. I don't know. But the shooting and the lynching were pretty much standard operating procedure at the time."
On Jan. 4, 1923, more whites arrived. At one home, the Carrier household, the men decided to defend themselves. Arnett Doctor relates the tale told to him by his mother, who died two years ago.
She told her son the Carrier house was a large dwelling with nine bedrooms. At night, the vigilantes came. "A mad white mob," Doctor says. They fired a shot that killed Philomena's grandmother. Doctor's uncle, Sylvester Carrier, however, was armed with a shotgun and ready. Sylvester returned fire.
"He tried to make sure they didn't leave that yard," Doctor says. "Uncle Sylvester saw to that."
Minnie Lee Langley, then a young girl and now living in Jacksonville, was also in the Carrier house.
"Couldn't fight them bullets," Langley told Dye. "Cousin Sylvester snatched me and said, 'Come here, let me save you. ...' I squeaked down between his legs. ... He was popping everyone he got. If they came in the door, he killed them."
Doctor said the Carrier lawn was littered with dead white men. No one knows the exact count.
The Jan. 5, 1923, Tallahassee Democrat reported: "During the night when the attackers ran out of ammunition and several had left to replenish the supply, the negroes, leaving the bodies of two women and one man in the house, escaped. The blood stains indicated that several had been wounded. Immediately after, the mob began firing the buildings in the village. When the village was in flames, it was said that members of the mob fired upon negroes who were fleeing from their homes."
After the attack on the Carrier house, more and more whites gathered in nearby Sumner, coming into town on horses, by train, in Model-Ts.
Dye suspects many of the men may have come from a large Ku Klux Klan rally in Gainesville several days earlier. The men, Dye believes, were enraged that Sylvester Carrier and other black men had the audacity to take up arms and defend themselves against whites.
"Armed resistance by blacks was just unthinkable at that time," Dye said. "That is why Rosewood was burned to the ground."
Lee Ruth Davis, now living at a nursing home in Miami, was 9 years old when she saw her home torched. She fled to the woods.
"We got down on our bellies and crawled," she told Dye. She and others were later saved by John Wright, a local white merchant and a man many call a hero. Other heroes may be John and William Bryce, two wealthy white Northerners who sent a slow-moving train through Rosewood and the surrounding hammocks to pick up terrified women and children and take them to Gainesville.
Over the next two days, every house in Rosewood, with the exception of Wright's, was apparently burned by a mob that Dye estimates reached several hundred men.
News of the Rosewood massacre spread across the country. A magazine called the Literary Journal ran a piece titled "Brisk Start of the 1923 Lynchings."
"These shocking outbreaks of atavism reveal how astonishingly little cultural progress has been made in some parts of the world," read the Socialist New York Call. Such events, "explain the industrial backwardness and political reaction of the South."
"Certainly this latest calamity in Florida is a serious reflection upon the State and its people," said the Utica Press.
"The utter breakdown of the law is admitted," read the New York World.
A grand jury was impaneled, the Rosewood riot investigated, and "insufficient evidence" found to indict anyone.
Because the state of Florida failed to send in the National Guard, or to take any action to save property and lives in Rosewood, Arnett Doctor thinks the state owes restitution.
"The implications on the national level are tremendous," Dye says. "This kind of thing -- burnings and lynchings -- didn't just happen in Rosewood. They happened everywhere. There were thousands of lynchings. Thousands. This is just the tip of an enormous iceberg."