THE ROSEWOOD MASSACRE REPORT

ROSEWOOD AND THE RACIAL VIOLENCE OF JANUARY 1923

Rosewood is located nine miles east of Cedar Key in western Levy County which was established March 10, 1845. What became the village of Rosewood – section 29, township 14 south: range 24 east – was first surveyed in 1847. By 1855 seven homesteads were strung out along a dirt trail leading to Cedar Key and the Gulf of Mexico. The Florida Railroad connecting Cedar Key with Fernandina opened in 1861. Rosewood took its name from the abundant red cedar that grew in the area. By 1870 the market value of cedar and the commercial production of oranges, as well as vegetable farming and limited cotton cultivation, justified a railroad station and small depot at Rosewood. The cedar was cut in the Rosewood vicinity, shipped by rail to Cedar Key on the Seaboard Airline Railway, which had replaced the Florida Railroad, and processed there at two large international pencil mills. The finished timber was then sent by boats to New York factories and fashioned into lead pencils.

By 1890 the red cedar had been cut out, forcing the closing of the pencil mills at Cedar Key. The community had a black majority by 1900, as white families moved out, leasing or selling their land to blacks. The post office and school closed, relocating to the site of a new cypress mill that opened in Sumner, a village three miles west of Rosewood. 

The events that culminated in the Rosewood affair began on the morning of January 1, 1923, at Sumner, the neighboring saw mill village. Residents would remember the winter as one of the coldest on record. Frances ("Fannie") Taylor, a twenty-two-year-old married woman, whose husband James Taylor (thirty) had gone to work at Cummer and Sons saw mill at Sumner, was home alone. Fred Kirkland and Elmer Johnson, two whites who were young men in 1923, remembered seventy years later that Taylor's job at the mill required him to oil the equipment before the other workers arrived. It was his habit, once he got the mill started, to return home for breakfast. 

Photo: Cummer Saw Mill in 1923

Deed records do not indicate that the Taylors owned property in Sumner. Their residence, said to have been surrounded by a picket fence, was probably owned by the Cummer Lumber Company. The company was headquartered in Jacksonville. Large operations were begun in Levy County in 1910 when the company purchased land for a railroad right of way. Several hundred men, whites and blacks, were employed at the mill whose main wood product was cypress lumber. The company's "quarters" were segregated by race. Another large labor force worked in the surrounding woods and swamps cutting timber and transporting it to the mill. From 1910 through the 1920s (it burned in 1927 and was never replaced), the company was engaged in a large number of real estate transactions.

According to Fannie Taylor's version of events, a black male came on foot to her house that morning and knocked. When she opened the door the man proceeded to "assault" her. From most accounts the intruder did not consummate the act of rape, although he beat her about the head and face. Some versions of the event claimed that she was both raped and robbed.  Fannie Taylor's cries for help attracted the attention of neighbors, and her assailant fled, supposedly headed south for Gulf Hammock, a dense expanse of swamps covered with jungle growth vines, palmettos, and forests. Although Fannie Taylor was not seriously injured and was able to describe what happened, the shock of the assault rendered her unconscious for several hours. Because no one ever disputed that some kind of physical attack took place, the incident was never referred to as an "alleged attack."  

……..

There were white men who declined to participate in the manhunt. One was the town barber of Cedar Key. Another resident of the town refused even to loan his gun to anyone. He did not want to "have his hands wet with blood," which seemed to be the clear intention of these white residents. 

On arriving at Rosewood the posse found a group of African Americans, estimates would vary later but the usual figures ranged between fifteen and twenty-five, barricaded in Sarah Carrier's house. The white posse apparently had six men initially, a figure which, if accurate, was quickly swelled to many times that number. The whites deliberated about how to accomplish their mission, and particularly how to discover Hunter's whereabouts. 

Finally, two men, Henry Andrews, 42, Superintendent of the Cummer Lumber Company's saw mill, and C. P. "Poly" Wilkerson, 45, a Sumner merchant and mill official, boldly approached the house. Wilkerson, a large man who weighed well over two hundred pounds, and Andrews, short but stocky and powerful, mounted the porch steps and attempted to enter. According to newspaper descriptions, the blacks inside opened fire (those who were armed had shotguns mainly), and the two white men fell dead. Some accounts had the whites firing the first shots. Andrews and Wilkerson were the second and third persons to be killed since Monday.

At Sumner a group of armed men surrounded the black district, and no one was permitted to go on the streets. As the forceful, stocky, dark complexioned W. H. Pillsbury explained, "I want to keep everything quiet here at Sumner. The important thing for us is to keep our own negroes [sic] busy at work, and prevent any spreading of the trouble. We all hope that the negro [sic] sought will be captured at once and put an end to this rioting. Every effort is being made to prevent any spread of the race trouble to Sumner." After the first reaction to the assault on Fannie Taylor, Pillsbury persuaded his white workers to remain in Sumner and not join the posses. He also got the whites to keep order in Sumner. Pillsbury was aided by another white man named Johnson who was the mill foreman. A similar precaution was taken at Bronson. That same Friday morning three hundred blacks went to work as usual in Sumner at the Cummer Lumber Company. Several blacks who attempted to leave town were turned back by Sheriff Walker. Guards were stationed around the village to keep blacks who had fled into the woods from returning.

The question of how many people died remains, however, and it may never be solved…. Based on contemporary evidence and accounts, there were eight deaths, six blacks and two whites. The blacks included were Sam Carter, Sylvester Carrier, Sarah Carrier, Lexie Gordon, Mingo Williams, and James Carrier. The white men were Henry Andrews and C. P. "Poly" Wilkerson.

Although most whites sided with the mob, there were several examples of whites who aided the black residents. In Sumner Ernest Parham's mother and stepfather (a man named Markham) ran the saw mill's hotel. During the first week of January, the Parhams smuggled their cook, Liza Bradley (who also worked for the Pillsburys and the Johnsons), out of town. She was hidden under laundry in the back seat of a car and driven past a roadblock to Bronson. White women in Sumner (including Mrs. Pillsbury and Mrs. Johnson) hid black women and children in the community at Sumner and later helped them escape by train to Gainesville. 

  SJW

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