John Colson: Hit and Run |

John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Ever heard of a little ghost town in Florida by the name of Rosewood? How about another Florida town, not so far to the east of Rosewood, by the name of Sanford? I hadn’t, either, until recently, when events forced them into my consciousness.

Rosewood came up when my little sister mentioned it during a conversation and I checked up on it. She had taken some black-history courses in college while studying to become a teacher, and she realized that Rosewood and Sanford have more in common than being at roughly the same latitude in a state with a nasty racial history.

In case you don’t know, Rosewood was a mostly black town located close to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico southwest of Gainesville. It was settled in 1845, with an economy driven mainly by the timber industry, pencil factories and agriculture, propped up by the slave system until the props were kicked out by the Civil War.

In 1923 a rampaging mob of whites, mostly men of the variety generally referred to as “crackers,” burned most of the town and killed an unknown number of Rosewood’s residents. It all came about apparently after a young white woman lied when she was beaten up by her white lover. To hide her infidelity from her young husband, she said her assailant was black, and an entire town suffered for that lie.

Sanford, of course, is the town where Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed Feb. 26. The admitted shooter was a man of mixed Latino/Hispanic race, George Zimmerman, who was part of a neighborhood-watch organization.

Interestingly, Sanford also happens to be the town that in 1946 threatened racial violence against baseball player Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color line in the major leagues in 1947. In 1946, Robinson was a year into playing on one of the Brooklyn Dodgers minor-league teams, which was set to hold spring training in Sanford. When the townspeople heard about that, being the good, church-going bigots that they were, they prevailed upon the mayor to run the team out of town. You can read about it if you don’t believe me.

Anyway, by late 1922 and early 1923, whites across the south were freaked out for a number of reasons.

The children and grandchildren of slaves had gone over to Europe and fought for their country in World War I, and they came back less malleable than before the war and carrying more than a little resentment against the Jim Crow system of segregation that ruled their hometowns.

The boll weevil had wreaked havoc on the cotton industry, the mainstay of the South, and scared whites took out their frustration and fears on the black population to the tune of as many as 40 lynchings a month across the region.

Black people began arming themselves and fighting back, and white paranoia grew. So it was that by the time Fannie Taylor told her lie in Rosewood, the area was primed with explosive racial tension, and during the course of a couple of weeks anywhere from eight to 150 black folks died violently and a whole town was burned out and abandoned.

And Sanford?

Well, it’s like this. No one knows exactly what went on in that gated neighborhood where Martin was killed. Zimmerman claims it was self-defense, though that’s a tough tale to accept given the fact that Zimmerman had a gun and Martin was carrying a candy bar.

I realize it’s a different world today compared with back in the 20s and ’40s. We have a black president, a black U.S. attorney general and other examples of improvement in our race relations. But on the ground, those known as “people of color” are still eyed with suspicion, distrust and rage by far too many people in power and by the economic power structure in general.

To sum it up, less than a century apart, we have two murderous atrocities straddling the racial divide in roughly the same part of Florida. Is there anything to be learned here?

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