A wreath of white roses now sits on what once was the railroad used by Black women and children to flee the violence of the Rosewood massacre 100 years ago.
The Sunday wreath laying ceremony commemorated the Black residents who lost their homes and lives to the massacre. Alongside the wreath, descendants of the survivors filled nine urns with the soil of the lost town — eight for the original families at the time of the massacre and one for unknown residents who lost their lives in the bloodshed.
Nearly 200 people attended, some bussing in from Jacksonville, Miami and Tallahassee to observe the ceremony.
The keynote speaker at the event was Gainesville City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who argued the importance of preserving this painful story.
“The fight goes on, the battle continues,” Chestnut said. “The mantra must be ‘never again.’”
The ceremony also served to celebrate the surviving families of the Rosewood massacre, where a white mob descended upon the Black community of Rosewood, Florida, murdering residents and razing the town.
The terror ensued from Jan. 1-7, leaving the town of roughly 200 people homeless. Many fled by train to Gainesville, nearly 50 miles west. The violence began after a white woman in neighboring Sumner alleged an unknown Black man had assaulted her, and whites from surrounding towns and even Georgia invaded in retaliation.
During her speech, Rabbi Robyn Fisher, of Beth Or in Miami, stressed the country won’t be able to heal without reconciling its troubling past.
“We cannot wipe away and clean from the history books the bloody truth,“ Fisher said. “We don’t get to experience reconciliation and redemption without first acknowledging the truth.”
Masons from the Most Worshipful Grand Union Lodge also participated. Because many men from the original Rosewood families were masons, members of the modern lodge laid the wreath.
An opening prayer from Fisher and a closing prayer from Rosewood descendant Paris Murphy-Doctor bookended the ceremony. The ceremony included several speakers: Chestnut, Florida International University professor Marvin Dunn, former state Sen. Tony Hill, chaplain Elvin Lee Jr. and co-founder of Ayoka Gifts International Cultural Center Nii Sowa-La.
Chestnut spoke about her experience in the Florida House of Representatives attempting to pass a bill to give Rosewood descendants compensation for the past — the first bill across the country to ever afford Black people reparations.
She also brought up the recent restoration of exclusionary zoning in Gainesville. It stands as an example of Black people like herself fighting to build wealth, she said.
“We can pass our homes onto our children,” she said.
Education is the next step to protect the legacy of the Rosewood residents, she said.
During her time as a legislator, Chestnut helped to begin a program called the Rosewood Scholarship for direct descendants. As of 2020, 297 students have received the scholarship since 1994, according to reporting from The Washington Post.
To see more Black wealth accumulated in America, Chestnut said, a new start for those descendants must be built.
After working with Rosewood descendants for almost 30 years to pass the bill, Chestnut said she sees the ceremony as a celebration of resiliency.
“This really just grabs my heart,” she said. “One hundred years — we can’t go back there. We can’t go back.”
A choir made up of Rosewood descendants sang the hymn “How Excellent” during the middle of the event.
Many of the descendants were children below the age of 12, said 38-year-old Benea Denson, a descendant of the Evans family and the president of Rosewood Family Reunion Inc. Denson, actor in “Rosewood”, has been involved with Rosewood descendant reunions for most of her life.
She helped prepare the choir of friends and family members for the event.
“We come from a singing family,” she said. “Singing comes like second nature to us. We learn it from the time that we can speak.”
Through music and ceremonies like these, the children who come from Rosewood families can learn how to take pride in their history, Denson said.
“We’ve been able to rise from the ashes,” she said. “We’ve been able to bring our family back together, reunite, become stronger and make history with our family.”
Contact Jack at email@example.com and Siena at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @JackLemnus and @SienaDuncan.
Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat.
Jack Lemnus is a fourth-year journalism major and rural Alachua reporter. He loves to practice his Spanish, fill his bookshelves and gatekeep what he considers underground music.