FIU exhibit presents the history of Rosewood

The Frost Art Museum's Rosewood exhibition | Angela Alvarez, PantherNOW

Mariana Riano and Angela Alvarez | Contributing Writers

In observance of the 100-year anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre, FIU’s Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum is displaying An Elegy to Rosewood this spring. 

This deeply personal exhibition, composed mainly of photos and family heirlooms, examines the Jenkins family’s history and how it became entangled with the fight for widespread acknowledgment of the white supremacy and state-sanctioned terrorism that destroyed the town.

Focusing primarily on the nature of Rosewood’s story as an inheritance, the exhibition highlights the burden held by three women to preserve a piece of US history. 

The exhibit opened on Jan. 25 with a speech from Lizzie Robinson Jenkins, niece of a survivor of the Rosewood Massacre.

 “My mother told me to not let this part of history die,” Jenkins said during her speech. “She said let it continue on for people and other generations to know.”

A line of photos in the exhibit | Angela Alvarez, PantherNOW

Jenkins’ speech wasn’t just a history lesson: it was an intimate story. She recalled when she first heard about Rosewood from her mother, on the couch with her brothers, who were dozing off. 

Jenkins, five years old at the time and the youngest of the children, remembers the story as “leaving its mark on her.” 

Her questions led to her aunt’s story becoming part of the bond between Jenkins and her mother. It became one of the few family heirlooms that wasn’t lost to the violence.

The Rosewood Massacre’s story starts on New Year’s Day 1923. A mob of 200 to 300 white men from nearby towns along with Klansmen from Gainesville lynched Jesse Hunter, a Black man who had escaped prison and hidden in Rosewood. The mob believed he had sexually assaulted a white woman in Sumner, a nearby town. 

Mahulda Gussie Brown Carrier, a schoolteacher and Jenkins’s aunt, would flee town along with the surviving residents. None would return.

Generations after the incident, Jenkins established The Real Rosewood Foundation to carry out historical research and expose Rosewood’s past. 

Underreporting of the massacre led to newspapers publishing incorrect death tolls; eyewitnesses estimated 30 to 40 Black men, women, and children died. Inaccuracies and holes in the story like these are part of what the TRRF aims to investigate and rectify. 

Jenkins has been retelling this story for over 20 years. At her mother’s behest, each time she tells it, she sings a song written about the massacre; though it was recorded in the 1990s, she says she prefers singing it in person. 

A Q&A panel followed, featuring Jenkins, TRRF’s Vice President Pedro Jermaine, and FIU Assistant Professor Daniel Royles. The panelists discussed the importance of remembrance and how the suppression of and indifference to the massacres of subjugated peoples is an ominous portent for the rights and dignity of minority populations.

Jenkins, Jermaine and Royles during the Q&A Session | Angela Alvarez, PantherNOW

“In recent years, many people have come to be aware… of other racial exposures, riots, assaults,” said Royles. “In Rosewood, as for so many other stories… people lost their homes… their belongings… their heirlooms… their loved ones who were murdered… their community… and people lost any other sense of security that they might have had.”

Hope Prevails is Jermaine’s interpretation of the massacre: a painting of a Black family escaping into the cedar forests of Rosewood. It is one of two paintings in the exhibit. Hope Prevails sits among household objects: a mirror, several old pocket watches, a pair of glasses, and a Bible—a glimpse into the lives in Rosewood’s thriving Black community. 

There is an aerial image of the Cedar Keys from 1939, where Rosewood had once been 10 years prior, and a photo of the only house left in Rosewood today. Above it hangs a town sign with gunshots through it. The Rosewood sign, according to Jenkins, is the most vandalized sign in the state of Florida. Jenkins aims to make the last house in Rosewood a historical site and a home base for TRRF’s operations. 

The exhibit is a visual addition to the story Jenkins shared. It is an ode to oral tradition, and a way to remember what was lost — who was lost — and what was had, even in the face of great oppression. 

An Elegy to Rosewood is open until April 16th, 2023.

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