Lizzie Jenkins and The Real Rosewood Foundation: A Tale of Injustice and Justice
By Ronnie Lovler
By Ronnie Lovler
Some people have been struggling for years to let us know that Black Lives Matter, even before Black Lives Matter came to the fore of our collective consciousness. Lizzie Jenkins is one of those people.
Jenkins, a historian now in her 80s, is the founder of The Real Rosewood Foundation in the small town of Archer in north-central Florida. The foundation exists to preserve knowledge, awareness and cultural sensitivity about a massacre that wiped out a small African American community in Florida almost a century ago.
Jenkins is committed to keeping the story of the 1923 Rosewood massacre alive, not only because it is part of her family history, but also because she thinks it directly impacts all of us.
She and I connected over the tipping-point Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd earlier this year and my recollections of my own experiences during the 1967 riots that occurred in my hometown of Newark, N.J. It was then that Jenkins told me about her family’s connection to the Rosewood killings and the way it impacted her life.
“From my perspective [remembering] is important,” Jenkins said in an interview. “Basically, the movement is replaying and reflecting on roadwork that came before. There are lots of things that happened in black lives. It’s like revolution all over again, History is repeating itself.
“And the good thing is, it is educating people who really did not know the seriousness of hate and injustice. This is bringing forth what we have lived all of our lives. I remember Jim Crow days with my parents, and it wasn’t easy.”
Jenkins hadn’t been born yet when the Rosewood massacre occurred on a January day more than 97 years ago. It left at least eight people dead, six blacks and two whites. It began over allegations of a black man’s sexual assault of a white woman.
The allegations triggered a race riot and wiped out Rosewood, which had been home to more than 100 people. All the buildings were burned down. Ku Klux Klan members and unaffiliated whites ran rampant over the community. It doesn’t exist any longer. All that is there now is an official state marker, which Jenkins worked to get placed, that indicates where the town once stood.
Jenkins has worked for decades to keep the memory of Rosewood alive. Recently, an exhibit was held at the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville, FL, commemorating Rosewood. Jenkins is about to publish a book on the history of Rosewood and what followed. And in the coming years, The Real Rosewood Foundation is planning a major event to commemorate the tragedy — a story that has been with Jenkins since she was a child.
Jenkins mother first taught her about Rosewood when she talked about Jenkins’ aunt, Mahulda Gussie Brown Carrier, one of the first black women educators in Florida.
“My aunt was the Rosewood schoolteacher and I remember her in my house and in my life when I was very young. She would always spend the weekend with us, and I didn’t know why,” Jenkins said.
One night, Jenkins’ mother began telling her children the story of Rosewood and of Sister, as she affectionately called Jenkins’ aunt. As a child, Jenkins said at first, she didn’t quite get it.
“I had no idea what she meant. The first thing that came to my mind was that this was going to be a story about roses in the woods,” she said.
But it was hardly a flowery tale. It was a story, watered down a bit for children’s ears, but nevertheless one of horror.
Jenkins’ Aunt Mahulda’s husband, Aaron Carrier, was one of the men attacked in the aftermath of Rosewood, and only saved from being killed by a compassionate white sheriff who whisked him to safety. Aunt Mahulda was also attacked. But at the time Jenkins didn’t know that.
“I finally went to sleep on her story,” Jenkins said recalling those early years, after her mother shared the Rosewood tale. “But for some reason the story attached itself to me and my heart. When I got up the next morning, it was fresh on my mind.”
“And I said to her, ‘Mom I want to hear more,’” Jenkins recalled. Rosewood became Jenkins’ story and eventually Jenkins passion to make sure no one forgot what happened there. “That story became our story and we talked about it often and I carried it to school every day. I took it to college. I took it to work. But we never talked about it, outside our home.
Rosewood’s story stayed buried for decades, but resurfaced in the 1980s when journalists began digging into the story. By that time, Jenkins was active, too. Eventually, the state of Florida granted $2.1 million in reparations to Rosewood descendants, including money for scholarships.
But Jenkins couldn’t let it stop there, and that is when her organization, The Real Rosewood Foundation, came into being. She founded it in 2003, and now is hard at work preparing for the centennial commemoration of the massacre. She hopes to build a museum that she plans to call the Rosewood Multicultural Education and Artistic Center.
My passion is because of the stories my mother told me,” she said “We are going to continue to teach and educate people in memory of my aunt,” Jenkins said. “Ever since we are telling this story of peace and reconciliation. And we hope more positive things will happen.“