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Sundown & Silence

By Kristen Merlo, with comments by Harrison Lawrence, Jaeyong Shim, Sarah Ballan, and Patrick O'Brien

In 1995, Christy Thompson of Cedar Key, Florida, said about African American tourists, "I saw a couple of ‘em not long ago, a black man and woman riding bicycles down by the pier, but I guarantee they didn't spend the night. They've all been told there's only one way in and one way out and you better be out before dark." That was 1995. What about 2004? Cedar Key had no black households in the 2000 census. (Loewen, Sundown 382)

[1] The token question on the first day of any history class is undoubtedly "Why study history?" Any relatively competent student will quickly learn that there is a succinct and successful answer to this expected question: "We must study history so that we do not repeat its mistakes." Certainly there is an emphasis placed upon this idea of being doomed to repeat one's history. An understanding of the past events and beliefs of our nation can certainly help one to recognize the patterns and offer explanations for many of the aspects of our society that superficially seem difficult to explain. For instance, racism and prejudice are not simple to explain; yet it is upon understanding the history of a nation that one will be able to better comprehend the implications of the present cultural moment.

[2] Ignorance, on the other hand, simply promotes a feeling of indifference with regard to the inequalities of society. Ignorance also makes it easy to dismiss troubles as "vicious cycles" or problems that are too ingrained and, thus, cannot be fixed. It is only when we look back and seek to understand the past that we can extrapolate the sources of the problems of today.

[3] Racial discrimination is just one of our country's many problems that can be explained by an understanding of American history. Indeed, the truths of our society are dictated by a recognition and understanding of our history. As James Loewen writes, "Neither skin color in itself, nor aesthetics, nor physical characteristics explain racism. History does. Events and processes in American history from the time of slavery to the present explain why we think it ‘natural' to differentiate based on skin color" (137-38).

[4] Certainly the United States has a history of racial oppression and violence -- yet the true magnitude of such a past is often intentionally disregarded. Classified as the "nadir of African American Life," the era following Reconstruction was a time of rampant violence and despicable race relations. While some of the violent skirmishes between blacks and whites have been well documented and identified as dark moments in our country's history of supposed equality, other events have been effectively hidden and discussion of them has been avoided.

[5] For instance, the Rosewood Massacre of 1923 was a brutal demonstration of white supremacy that went untold for sixty years. Resulting in the destruction of an entire African American community, the Rosewood Massacre gained no place in American history until a Florida investigative news reporter published an article in 1982. Gary Moore of the St. Petersburg Times ran a story on Rosewood that sparked nationwide interest and memories. Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes later produced a documentary about Rosewood; and in 1997, John Singleton brought the story of the massacre to Hollywood through his production of Rosewood. Why did it take sixty years before the events at Rosewood were exposed for their true horror?

[6] John Singleton's 1997 Rosewood presents viewers with the disturbing and uncomfortable topics of racism, white supremacy, violence, and the dehumanization of the black community. More importantly, though, Rosewood exposes a dark chapter of American history and forces audiences to reconsider both the political and personal implications of race relations. Based on the little-known Rosewood Massacre of 1923, Singleton's film explores the impact of one white woman's false accusation upon an entire black community in Florida. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle star as the courageous leaders of the threatened black community, as they seek to uphold their personal pride and to stand up for their way of life through the race riots. John Wright (Jon Voight), a white shopkeeper, faces a moving moral dilemma -- he is forced to choose between supporting the rioting whites or the fleeing blacks. Rosewood effectively couples a horrible historical event with a string of love stories, emotional family struggles, and a redefinition of pride. Singleton develops complex characters throughout his film, as he questions whether or not equality between whites and blacks is possible in America.

[7] The interactions among Singleton's characters are authentic, and the emotions and tensions are often palpable. In Rosewood, Singleton places an emphasis upon the notion of community and belonging; he makes it clear that his characters know their respective places in the world and that society functions as a corrupted yet functioning machine. As Aunt Sarah (Esther Rolle) expresses it at New Year's Eve Dinner: "Time's ain't never changed for no crackers, boy. Don't you forget they burned a colored man … over in Wylie last summer for winking at a white woman" (0:17:26). Singleton's film explores the delicate notion of "changing times" for both the white man and the black man. What does it mean to move forwards towards a society of equality? Who controls such inclusion and exclusion?

[8] The theme of "progressive versus unprogressive" in American history is especially fascinating. We often talk about progress, change, and working towards an ultimate upholding of our ideals and values, yet, as E.D. Hirsch, Jr., points out, we also seem to act upon an inherent desire to "preserve the political and economic status quo." Preserving this status quo is certainly beneficial to only some of the groups in a given society -- namely, the upper socioeconomic classes. Preservation of the status quo allows the upper classes to progress, while forcing the lower classes in any given society to regress -- ever-widening the gap between the two. Progressive action, ideally, should promote equality and justice. Moreover, it should recognize truth as an important vehicle for progressive action.

[9] By ignoring the truth of the Rosewood Massacre for so long, American history has succeeded in preserving the status quo. Such ignorance outwardly promotes both white supremacy and the dehumanization of blacks. In Like Judgment Day, Michael D'Orso describes Rosewood as a debilitating "secret": "Over the better course of the century, through twelve presidents, from Warren Harding to Ronald Reagan, the whites of Levy County, as well as the blacks who had fled, had kept their secret among themselves, some out of fear, some out of shame, and all, as the years went by, with the rooted belief that the thing was behind them, done with, a bad memory at worst and at best simply something to be forgotten" (48). The events at Rosewood have been silenced by a few, forgotten by the majority, and painfully remembered by just enough individuals to uphold the negative relations between blacks and whites in Levy County, Florida, even today. (see comment by Jaeyong Shim)

[10] Even today, the land where Rosewood once stood is occupied by areas best described as "sundown towns." Defined by historian James Loewen as "any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus ‘all-white' on purpose," sundown towns are a reality of American History that has been systematically overlooked (3). Though there are thousands of examples of sundown towns in the United States, Levy County is one of the most extreme examples. Though it was never incorporated under Florida municipal law, Rosewood was a well-established community. In the film, Aunt Sarah discusses Rosewood as "colored folks' heaven on earth:" "Best place these old eyes ever seen… Colored folks own all the land around here. All the businesses, too, except for Mr. Johnny Wright's store, and he a halfway decent white man, if there ever were such a thing. Most of us doin' better than them folks over in Sumner. You ever seen a place like Rosewood, Mr. Mann?" (0:19:07). Black communities such as Rosewood were "places to which the excluded have retreated to live, yet close enough to nearby white towns to work" (Loewen 84). The organization of society based upon where a group of people lives and works is intentional. Areas of America which are "all-white" did not naturally occur that way -- they are no mistake. (see comment by Patrick O'Brien)

[11] Sundown towns are a scary realization of how far the United States has failed to progress over the past years. Loewen offers his argument regarding the relationship between sundown towns and perpetuating racism: "In fact, residential segregation is one reason race continues to be such a problem in American. But race isn't really the problem. Exclusion is the problem. The ghetto -- with all its pathologies -- isn't the problem; the elite sundown suburb -- seemingly devoid of social difficulties -- is the problem. Exclusion is the problem. As soon as we realize that the problem in America is white supremacy, rather than black existence or black inferiority, then it becomes clear that sundown towns and suburbs are an intensification of the problem, not a solution to it. So long as racial inequality is encoded in the most basic single facet in our society -- where one can live -- the United States will face continuing racial tension, if not overt conflict" (17).

[12] There are moments when watching Singleton's Rosewood that the viewer cannot help but acknowledge the fact that racial relations between blacks and whites today are not so dissimilar from those of the 1920's. Heritable racism becomes apparent in an examination of both Rosewood, the film, as well as the stories of the real Rosewood survivors. In the film, Singleton uses the father-son relationship between Duke Purdy and Emmet to clearly outline the promotion of prejudice into the next generation. At the beginning of the film, Purdy tells Emmet that he should no longer spend time with his black friend, Arnett. Later, we watch as Purdy teaches Emmet to tie a noose and then forces him to look at the mass grave of blacks. Duke Purdy offers his wisdom: "A nigger is a nigger, boy. None of us like it. God made the world the way it is, and we just got to live in it. You get as old as I am, you become a man … you're gonna learn a lot of things. A nigger is a nigger, boy. That's the way. You understand me, Emmett?" (vol. 2 --0:46:37). Especially disturbing is the lynching scene, where the lynchings become a spectacle, and we watch a mother tell her young child, "See the nigger? They got him. No. You've got to look and see. You've got to remember this. It's somethin' you've got to remember. Look" (vol. 2 -- 0:20:50).

[13] Likewise, the accounts of Rosewood survivors also seem to demonstrate racial mistrust. Maxine Jones tells the story of survivor Philomena Goins Doctor who was trapped in the Carrier house during the shootout and later fled to the swamps with the women and children. After Rosewood, Philomena "never trusted whites again, and was afraid until the day she died … [furthermore] She shielded them [her children] from whites and refused to allow her children to get too close to them. She instilled in her children her own distrust and fear of whites" (Jones 200-1). Through Rosewood, Singleton captures the reality of the transmission of racism from one generation to the next. He sensitively explores both sides of this generational racism -- as both blacks and whites express a sense of impending and perpetual doom when it comes to negative race relations. Aunt Sarah expresses this hopeless attitude: "Things been looking the same as long as I can remember, Mr. Bryce." (see comment by Harrison Lawrence)

[14] Though critiqued by many for incorporating a fictional, heroic character into the storyline, John Singleton valiantly pursued a challenge when he agreed to bring the reality of Rosewood to Hollywood. Whether Singleton realized it or not, he held a great deal of responsibility in the composition of Rosewood, because of its little known nature in American history. The film was not financially successful, but Singleton expertly legitimizes such financial failure: "Rosewood seemed like a ripe subject to paint a very provocative portrait of the America people rarely want to talk about. Ours is a morbid history; most try to evade it. Black people don't want to remember being the victims of lynching, rape, the separation of families, living under Jim Crow and all the horrors those things entailed. And White folks don't want to remember being the perpetrators of that kind of persecution … Rosewood was a whole different thing. The studio didn't support it. They were afraid of the picture. You're talking about black genocide" (Singleton).

[15] Singleton exposes Rosewood's "repressed history" through his film and probes viewers to question their individual understandings of American history (Guerrero). If we did not want to hear about it then and do not want to hear about it now -- is American society and our cultural way of thinking really dynamic, or are we stuck in the same rut? How has our willingness to understand and learn about such horrible events changed over the years, if at all? What does it mean to be "educated" in American history -- whose account of American history matters?

[16] Thus, Singleton's role in directing Rosewood has become much more than cinematographic and casting decisions. More importantly, Singleton has a responsibility as a historian. American history classes in schools are choosing to ignore the 1923 events at Rosewood, but Singleton has chosen to expose them. "Even those charged with remembering such events -- the people who write history -- even they had forgotten about Rosewood. There was no mention of it in any book on Florida's past, no record in any account of the region's racial relations. It was as if the historians, like the families themselves, had chosen to leave Rosewood behind, keeping the secret by joining the silence" (D'Orso 48). Singleton refuses to join the silence.


Jaeyong Shim 7/23/12

The theme Kristen mentions in the past two paragraphs is progressive vs. unprogressive. She defines "progressive" as pursuing changes to achieve ideal values. On the other hand, "unprogressive" is to preserve the status quo. These two values conflict with each other all the time. It is a dilemma for a person or a group of individuals to chase what is right or what is most beneficial.

In the Rosewood massacre, people would say that they kept it secret in order to preserve the status quo or to prevent further racial disorder. However, is the status quo the ultimate goal of the society? We can never get better in that sense. Benefits of preserving the status quo are confined to short-term. Disharmony between races has continued, and victims were not consoled until 1980s. Kristen says, "The events at Rosewood have been silenced by a few, forgotten by the majority, and painfully remembered by just enough individuals to uphold the negative relations between blacks and whites in Levy County, Florida, even today." By confronting a problem, it can be solved; silence is not an ultimate solution. And, I can't agree more with Kristen in that sense. (see comment by Sarah Ballan)

Harrison Lawrence 7/23/12

Kristen touches on the mistrust that the survivors of Rosewood have to this day and have instilled in their children. Philomena Goins Doctor was one of the survivors that was in the Carrier house and later escaped to the swamps that remembers that incident and has clearly never forgotten nor forgiven the race associated with the events at Rosewood. The effects of what happened have left lasting effects on these poor and undoubtedly undeserving souls. What strikes me as crazy is that in today's world, many whites who aren't accustomed to being social with African Americans on an everyday basis would have an unnecessary reaction to be fearful of darker-skinned men; however even in today's age where we have come so far as far as race relations are concerned, there are African Americans out there who were raised to be fearful of whites. And can we blame them after what they and their ancestors went through and keep secret for nearly a century?

Patrick O'Brien 7/23/12

In Sundown Towns, James Loewen lists several causes of Sundown Towns (intentionally homogenously "white" towns), ranging from the effect of the nadir of race relations from 1890 to 1940 to the presence, or lack thereof, of a Democratic majority or labor strife. One explanation offered by Loewen refers to the dismissal of white suburbanites of racial exclusivity as a natural feature of the real estate market. This was also discussed in tremendous depth by historians such as Thomas Sugrue and David Freund, among others, who have written about the urban crisis of the post WWII era, and the rapid growth of the suburbs in that same era.

In Colored Property, Freund traces the gradual (and not absolute) transformation of white racial thinking from the early 20th century to the Civil Right Movement. Freund argues that the federal role in suburban development, most notably the Federal Housing Administration (FHA -- who "redlined" neighborhoods, that is, refused to insure mortgages that were given to non-whites) was not merely to endorse and accelerate market practices that discriminated against minorities, as most scholars argue, but that it created a new kind of discriminatory mortgage marketplace. As Freund sees it, white racism in the postwar era cannot be separated conceptually from other whites' ideas about property value and homeowner rights. In other words, race is not an exogenous factor; race and class in this context are relational. White homeowners after World War II equated whiteness, homeownership, and citizenship, and segregation became not just a matter of ideology or prejudice but a matter of economics. They concluded that property had economic values that were racially specific, essentially arguing that property could be "colored." Northern whites, who had formulated their racialist beliefs around a scientific racism, reframed segregation as the result of impersonal, apolitical, and free mortgage market forces, while remaining oblivious to the extent or nature of governmental intervention. Consequently, white northerners believed (and continue to) they earned their suburban ideal solely through their hard work and desire (and on the other hand, blacks earned their deteriorating living conditions), and they believed that the civil rights movement, with its demand for integration, was an attack on their rights as homeowners. They believed that civil rights activists were looking for special treatment -- a handout to achieve what they supposedly could not get in the free market.

Their acceptance of the free-market narrative effectively masked the impact of federal racial policies. According to Freund, most whites easily embraced the idea that racial segregation was the natural product of the market. Freund then demonstrates how whites linked categories such as "property owner" and "homeowner" to whiteness, evoked economic arguments to support segregation, and talked of protecting their rights, usually without even talking about race. By casting segregation as the impersonal and apolitical product of market forces all while ignoring government's huge role in creating it, white northerners thus were thinking about race differently than their prewar predecessors. Freund is not arguing that the scientific racism of the prewar era was replaced wholesale by the "market imperative" type of racism shortly after the war. According to Freund, this transformation was very gradual, and whites often held both racial views simultaneously. Ultimately, Freund argues that security, for northern white suburbanites, was to be found in the home, in the form of its property value. Residents resorted to using the language of land use, blocking the development of low-income housing or rental units, electing local politicians who advocated racial exclusion, pressuring local realtors to steer people of color away, and sometimes resorting to violent intimidation to protect their investment and the citizenship it conveyed.

Sarah Ballan 7/24/12

I would like to build on Jaeyong's comment regarding the theme of progressive vs. unprogressive in Kristen's essay. These conflicting societal values are present in both the Sheriff and in Mr. Wright. Mr. Wright is the character with the more progressive mindset. He pursues a change in the treatment of African Americans. Wright verbally expresses his disgust to the Sheriff when he learns Aunt Sarah has been shot. He also decides to let some of the black people hide in his house because they are too weak or old to run away into the woods. This act takes a lot of courage, as Wright risks losing his store and possibly his life. He is the first white man to actively try to protect the innocent black people from being chased down and lynched. The Sheriff, however, tries to maintain the status quo of the town. Since a majority of the townspeople are in favor of lynching the "niggers" and burning their houses down, the Sheriff goes along with the angry mob as they fulfill these wicked fantasies. A Sheriff, by definition, is "an elected officer who is responsible for keeping the peace." In other words, a Sheriff's job is to maintain order in a community. The riots that break out because of Mrs. Taylor's false accusation disturb this so-called peace. Instead of putting an end to the violence, the Sheriff tries to keep the white people happy by letting them lynch whomever they please. The Sheriff knows that Mrs. Taylor is lying, yet he allows the lynching to continue because he does not want to challenge the claim of a white woman, therefore disturbing the status quo of the community. Ultimately, he does not succeed in doing his job well as Sheriff and falls into the "unprogressive" category.