Today is not a happy anniversary. Exactly 100 years ago, on January 1, 1923, the Rosewood massacre began.
Like the massacre of children in the gospel of Matthew, Rosewood reminds us of the devastating impact of violence, especially on the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Rosewood was a quiet and mostly African American town in Florida. According to the History website, it was originally settled by both black and white people, and the main industry was the production of pencils. But when the cedar tree population declined, most of the white people moved to the nearby town of Sumner. By the 1920s, Rosewood’s population was about 200 blacks, plus one white family that ran the general store.
On January 1, 1923, a young white woman in Sumner, Fannie Taylor, was found covered in bruises. She claimed that a black man had assaulted her. Her husband, a foreman at a local mill, gathered a mob of white citizens to hunt down the assailant. He also called for help from neighboring counties, including 500 members of the Ku Klux Klan. The white mobs searched the woods for any black man they could find.
Law enforcement determined that a black prisoner named Jesse Hunter had escaped from a chain gang. They immediately made him a suspect. The mobs focused their searches on Hunter and went after black families that they believed were hiding him.
In Rosewood, one mob pulled a black man out of his house, tied him to a car, dragged him to Sumner, and beat him. Another mob tortured a blacksmith until he took them to the spot where Hunter was said to be hiding. When Hunter was not found, they shot the blacksmith and hung him in a tree.
On the night of January 4, a mob of armed white men surrounded a house in which 25 people were hiding, mostly children. Shots were fired, and a black woman and her son were killed. Two white attackers were also killed. The gun battle lasted overnight and ended when the whites broke down the door and the black children escaped into the woods.
Newspapers falsely reported that bands of armed black citizens were going on a rampage. White attackers burned down the churches of Rosewood, and then went after people in houses. Dozens died, both blacks and whites. By January 7, most of the town was burned to the ground, and the fleeing black citizens never returned.
As for Fannie Taylor, the young white woman? Some survivors believe that her bruises were inflicted by a white lover. And Jesse Hunter, the escapee from the chain gang? He was never found.
The gospel of Matthew speaks of a voice in Ramah, a city in ancient Israel. You can change the location from Ramah to Rosewood, and the verse still makes perfect sense:
A voice is heard in Rosewood, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (2:18).
In both ancient Israel and modern America, we know the devastating impact of violence, especially on vulnerable children and adults.
Jesus Himself faced deadly violence at the very beginning of His life. Right after the wise men left Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him” (v. 13).
King Herod was feeling threatened by the birth of this baby who had been identified as the king of the Jews. He didn’t want any competition, even from a child who had no political or military power at his disposal. Feeling frightened and infuriated, Herod ordered a search and destroy mission to be carried out in Bethlehem.
Unfortunately, the feelings that drove Herod to violence are still alive and well. According to The Guardian, Rosewood was a prosperous black town in 1923, “with its own baseball team, a masonic temple and a few hundred residents.” A black survivor of the massacre says that whites were disturbed because they looked at Rosewood and saw a bunch of black folks “living better” than white folks.
Such resentment can lead to violence, both then and now. From Bethlehem to Rosewood, the bloody story remains the same.
Look around today, and you see resentments that can lead to violence. Many residents of “red” states resent residents of “blue” states, and vice versa. Some citizens feel threatened by immigrants, and immigrants feel anxious in the United States. Fault lines appear between members of different racial and cultural groups.
We look at the world and feel threatened, which is exactly what Herod experienced.
But what if we looked at the world and saw the presence of God?
Herod had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to welcome the baby Jesus, the one-and-only Son of God. But what he did was send his troops “to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (v. 16). He resorted to violence because he did not see Jesus as a gift from God. Instead, he saw him as a threat.
As followers of Jesus, we are challenged to see our neighbors as gifts, not threats. “When you meet another person,” says author and pastor John Pavlovitz, “you are coming face-to-face with a once-in-history, never-to-be-repeated reflection of the image of God. … each [is] made of God stuff. … Every single day you encounter thousands of breathing, animated thumbnails of the Divine.”
Every person you meet is God stuff. It doesn’t matter where they were born, whether they’re old or young, red or blue; your neighbors are “thumbnails of the Divine.” They are gifts, not threats. Worthy of respect, not hostility.
What a difference this makes, from Bethlehem to Rosewood.
Once we see our neighbors in this way, we are challenged to take action to protect the most vulnerable people around us. They could be special-needs adults, low-income neighbors, recent immigrants, political refugees, members of a minority group, or neighborhood children. Joseph made the decision to protect the vulnerable when he ‘took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod” (vv. 14-15).
Joseph lived as an immigrant in that foreign land until an angel appeared to him and said it was safe to return to Israel. Then he returned but made a detour when he learned that the son of Herod was ruling over Judea. Instead of moving to Bethlehem of Judea, he headed north to Galilee, and there “he went and lived in a town called Nazareth” (v. 23).
This story contains so many examples of vulnerability. Jesus and his family were political refugees, immigrants, members of a minority group in Egypt, and finally Southerners who settled in the North. And just as Joseph cared for his vulnerable child and wife, we are challenged to care for the at-risk people around us.
Some of the heroes of Rosewood were John Wright, the white owner of the general store, who allowed blacks to hide in his home during the massacre. Two wealthy white brothers, John and William Bryce, heard about the violence and sent a train to rescue black women and children. And, of course, many brave black women and men, including Sylvester Carrier, protected their children. A survivor of the massacre, who was a young girl at the time, says, “Cousin Sylvester snatched me and said, ‘Come here, let me save you. …’ I squeaked down between his legs.”
When we hear “weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children” (v. 18), our challenge is to respond with compassion and care. We cannot cover our eyes and ears, ignoring the violence being done around us. When Jesus grew up and saw vulnerable people around him, he “had compassion on them” (14:14). The word compassion comes from the Latin words passio and com, which literally mean “suffer” and “with.” To have compassion is to “suffer with” people, to take their pain seriously and do whatever we can to alleviate it.
Jesus showed us the way when he healed the servant of a Roman centurion (7:5-13) and helped a Canaanite woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon (15:21-28). Since He was familiar with suffering, He was never afraid to show compassion to people in need, even if they were outside of His religious or cultural group. The Letter to the Hebrews says that because Jesus “himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (2:18, NRSV).
From Bethlehem to Rosewood, from ancient Israel to 21st-century America, we need to identify with victims of racism, discrimination and violence, and take action to protect the innocent and vulnerable people around us. Joseph did this when he took Jesus and Mary to Egypt. John Wright did this when he took black residents of Rosewood into his home. Sylvester Carrier did this when he defended his home and saved the children in his care.
Today is not a happy anniversary. But maybe it is the first day in a new century of care for people in need.