On the cusp of Black History Month “ending” on a calendar and Women’s History Month “beginning,” there comes a threshold in which stories must stop being told and defined by time and instead, by the urgency of their lessons.
Black women, who stand firmly between the definitive start and stop dates of what February and March are meant to honor, and who are misunderstood continuously in the retelling and passing down of personal and collective histories, must be listened to with care.
The story of Rosewood, a two-century old pencil factory town in northwest Levy County, Florida, is one striving to break the struggle of being overlooked. It is kept alive by Lizzie Robinson Jenkins, in part because of her aunt Mahulda Carrier who survived the 1923 Rosewood Massacre. Lizzie kept the realities of the 1923 massacre alive through persistence, arduous preservation, and intensive research across a score of several decades.
The dawn of a 1923 New Year in Rosewood forfeited celebration for the predominantly Black town when Frances “Fannie” Taylor, a white married woman living in the neighboring town of Sumner, falsely accused a Black man of assault and robbery in her home. The eyewitness account of her laundress, Sarah Carrier, present on the day of the alleged attack, claims Frances’ white lover came into the home just hours before the claim accusation went public.
Starting out as a little white lie in which to cover her infidelity, Frances’ rumor spread like wildfire throughout the north of segregated Florida. Jim Crow laws, a crowd of Ku Klux Klan members in Gainesville, and a mob of angered white citizens brewed together in anger and descended in hundreds upon the town of Rosewood.
The mob of 500 lynched, tortured, and destroyed the lives and homes of the Black residents in the town for a full week. In the ensuing years after the 1923 massacre, a culture of silence—either from resistance to retelling the pain of the ordeal or a desire by a white lens to suffocate the reality of the event—caused the truth to slip into oblivion and “historical amnesia” about what really happened during the Rosewood Massacre.
In the ensuing years of the 1923 massacre, a culture of silence—either from resistance to retelling the pain of the ordeal or a desire by a white lens to suffocate the reality of the event—caused the truth to slip into oblivion and “historical amnesia” about what really happened during the Rosewood Massacre.
It wouldn’t be until the 1980s when a spark of investigative justice ensued and eventually snowballed to the 1994 passing of the Rosewood Compensation Bill, a $2.1 million package by the state of Florida to compensate survivors and their descendants. This, along with preserving the legacy of Rosewood by Lizzie Robinson Jenkins under the The Real Rosewood Foundation, Inc., awoke a collective consciousness and an almost forgotten oral history.
Opening this past January 25 and on view through April 16 in commemoration of the Rosewood Massacre’s 100th anniversary, An Elegy to Rosewood at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami, Florida educates, commemorates, and honors the lives of those who lived in Rosewood.
Commissioned by the museum are original artworks by four Miami-based Black women artists—Rhea Leonard, Charlisa Montrope, Chire Regans, and Tori Scott—in direct response to the history of the Rosewood Massacre. The exhibition is not only a historical rabbit hole filled with artifacts but also a testament to the power of Black women as the driving forces of keeping generational stories intact. Their work makes history available for current and future generations to listen and learn from in today’s threatening ecosystem of state-sanctioned education.
Each commissioned artist responded through their own particular emotional processing of the historical events and in the structure of mediums familiar in their individual practices. Rhea Leonard structures and folds worn newsprint pages that are unfinished in text in a pentagonal artist book that stands slightly upright titled Message for the Next. The absence of complete information draws the viewer’s attention away from the work and towards the entire exhibition’s nature, as Leonard regards herself as “an outsider” in distance and time to the Rosewood community.
The braided hair and charcoal portraits of Lizzie Robinson Jenkins, her mother Theresa Brown Robinson, and her grandmother Lizzie Brown in We Remember, We Remain by Chire Regans (VantaBlack30) render figurative homage to the women who have kept Rosewood alive through their deeply embedded lives with one another.
During my attendance at the opening reception, I crossed the initial entryway of the museum to locate the remainder of the works. An adjacent room juxtaposes artworks by Charlisa Montrope and Tori Scott with black and white photographs of race riot victims and the destruction of Black property. In Quiet No Longer, Tori Scott encapsulates the memory of Rosewood in a “burned” home diorama reflecting historical cut-outs of individuals from the town.
Just steps away, Charlisa Montrope’s Don’t Look In The Well contextualizes historical maps of Florida. Burnt covers flank an artist book that spans the center of the room, taking a 19th century diagram denoting the town of Rosewood as “Negro Town” and including it in scattered company with the names of victims and firsthand accounts.
Taking place at the start of the opening reception, a panel discussion commenced the start of a pivotal conversation revolving around the timeliness of An Elegy to Rosewood.
Taking place at the start of the opening reception, a panel discussion commenced the start of a pivotal conversation revolving around the timeliness of An Elegy to Rosewood. One of the statements that resounded deeply was a comment from Lizzie on the reasons behind hiring then Governor Jeb Bush as a keynote speaker for the dedication of the Rosewood historical marker. She stated blatantly that, despite their opposing political affiliations, “History is not political. We need to get the work done.”
Working towards a common ground, the revelation of who we are as a Southern identity darkened by a tragic past is one that necessitates storytelling and courage to tell the truth. For those who are honored in the exhibition, oral storytelling is a way in which to save them from slipping from our fleeting consciousness and being erased altogether. Saying their names is a ritual of permanence.
Working towards a common ground, the revelation of who we are as a Southern identity darkened by a tragic past is one that necessitates storytelling and a courage to tell the truth. For those honored in the exhibition, oral storytelling saves from slipping from our fleeting consciousness and being erased altogether. Saying their names is a ritual of permanence.
As I walked the museum of my alma mater, the resounding significance of An Elegy to Rosewood became increasingly apparent. The works on view manifest a type of personal legacy for both Rosewood and Black women’s voices leading the protection of this shared—and previously silenced—history. To do the work is to commission and support Black women artists and to listen without interruption as they share their stories. The work must be done to not forget and to not repeat, no matter how far or close you are to Rosewood in years or miles.
© Isabella Marie Garcia (03/05/23) — Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
To read more about An Elegy to Rosewood, click here.
Check out “An Elegy to Rosewood: Panel Discussion” by The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum here.
Learn more about The Real Rosewood Foundation, Inc. and how to support their mission here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Installation View of An Elegy to Rosewood at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, Miami, Florida. Photo taken on January 25, 2023 by Isabella Marie Garcia for FF2 Media.
Body Photo: Lizzie Robinson Jenkins Speaking at the Panel Discussion during Opening Reception of An Elegy to Rosewood at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, Miami, Florida. Photo taken on January 25, 2023 by Isabella Marie Garcia for FF2 Media.
Body Photo: Detail of Charlisa Montrope, Don’t Look in the Well, 2022, seriagraph, intaglio, archival pigment print on Magnani Pescia paper. Photograph courtesy of the artist and by Mateo Serna Zapata.