There’s only one road to Cedar Key, which might be why it’s off the beaten path … except on weekends and in season when the village’s population swells to overload and tourists crowd Dock Street.
Stuffed SUVs and big boat-pulling trucks come and go from the popular Old Florida vacation destination, zooming right past a classic roadside sign marking the place where another village once stood. There’s no town anymore. Just the sign and one house and the story of Rosewood.
We are trying to re-navigate history in this country. Attempting to decide which monuments to keep and which to remove. We are changing the names of sports teams and outlawing symbols of racism.
But what I’ve found is that most people don’t even know the stories. I’ve also learned that history changes depending on who is telling the story—kind of like politics.
History of Rosewood
Most people didn’t learn of Rosewood until John Singleton’s 1997 movie. Way back in the day, Rosewood was an integrated town. Cedar Key was a busy seaport, shipping cedar planks for pencil making to the north and overseas. Rosewood was named for the pink cedars found in the area.
As Tampa surpassed Cedar Key as the more important port, the work dried up and most whites moved off to Sumner. By the 1920s, Rosewood was home to about 300 black people. Racial tensions were at a low rumble when a young white woman accused a black man of assaulting her on New Year’s Eve 1923. Two men were seen fleeing the area—one white; one black.
An escapee from the road crew was accused and running for his life as white avengers organized. The Jan. 2nd Gainesville Sun covered it this way: “The negro believed by many to be guilty was making for Gulf Hammock, one of the densest forests in Florida. … The entire county is aroused and virtually every able-bodied man has joined in the search.”
A black man believed to have helped the escapee was tortured and shot, then hanged in Rosewood. Blacks holed up in a big house as angry white mobs grew angrier. A lot of shots were fired on both sides, and a lot of people died. When the mob retreated to get the ammunition, the blacks still alive inside escaped hiding in the woods.
When the mob returned reloaded, the village was set afire and men used dogs to hunt down and shoot black people fleeing their burning homes. Women and children hid in the swamps until a pair of white merchants sent a slow train through the area to gather them together and bring them to Gainesville.
There was nothing left to go home to in Rosewood. What had been home was burned to the ground except for one house, which you can read about in this article The Last House in Rosewood.
Lessons Learned from Cedar Key
Sure, it made national news, and Florida looked more uncivilized than the wild, wild west. But truth is, this sort of thing was going on all across the country. The Florida governor did offer to send National Guard, but local authorities thought they had it under control. Sound familiar?
We can’t erase history by taking down monuments and changing textbooks. We can change the future by retelling the stories and learning from history, so we don’t repeat it. St. Petersburg Times reporter Gary Moore wrote an investigative piece on Rosewood in 1982, bringing the story national attention again. That’s when the secrets started spilling out, and the story came to life.
As for Cedar Key, it’s definitely worth the trip. It’s Old Florida at its best. But don’t speed by. Take a moment to stop by Rosewood and read the marker. Be reminded of how important it is to co-exist and stay levelheaded in these sadly divisive times.
Top photo credit- Barbara Smoloff
2nd photo credit- Wikipedia