Nell Irvin Painter


"THE FLAMES OF RACIAL HATRED," Review by Nell Irvin Painter in The Washington Post Book World, 4 February 1996; Page x3

The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood

By Michael D'Orso
Grosset/Putnam. 372 pp. $27.50

DURING THE late 19th and early 20th centuries, a white supremacist practice called "driving out" in the West and "whitecapping" in the South flourished. In this process, white people attacked, killed or drove away from their homes Chinese or African Americans. Murder and assault deprived the victim of more than bodily safety, for driving out and whitecapping occurred in places where minorities owned property, land and businesses. One of the tenets of white supremacy was that non-whites must We will never know how many people became corpses or exiles as a result of driving out and whitecapping, but we do know about the all-black, west Florida town of Rosewood. The murder and arson that destroyed Rosewood in the first week of 1923 began predictably enough. The pretext: the charge of rape of a white woman by a black man in a neighboring white town, an attack never carefully investigated or substantiated. Black folks working in the houses of the white town believed that the woman inquestion was carrying on an affair with a white man who beat her up, necessitating the fabrication of a credible attack by a stranger. Then as now, charges against an unknown black man can become irresistible, even though rape is far more common within families, friendships, neighborhoods and races. In 1923 the accusation brought a mob of white men to Rosewood to murder some of the black people there and permanently drive away the rest. This much of the story might have happened in many other places and times, ending with loss, denial and, finally, forgetting.

But white solidarity isn't what it used to be, and so Southern history these days is taking unexpected turns, thanks to the crucial support of white Southerners of conscience. In 1987, for example, Beulah Mae Donald, the mother of a lynching victim in Mobile, Ala., won a judgment of $7 million (in settlement, Donald was deeded the headquarters building and property of the United Klans of America Inc. in Tuscaloosa, Ala.), after an all-white jury found Klansmen guilty of conspiracy to commit, in

The case of Rosewood was reopened beginning in 1982, when Gary Moore, a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times, interviewed Arnett Doctor, the descendant of one of the victims. Doctor, a janitorial contractor in Jordan Park, Fla., subsequently conducted his own investigation, spending about $20,000 that he could ill afford, to discover what his ancestors had owned and lost in Rosewood. By the late 1980s Doctor had become thoroughly enraged by the losses, as he realized that they encompassed more than land and houses. The toll included premature death, lasting feelings of vulnerability and other personality changes -- in short, all that we now sum up as post-traumatic stress disorder. A community had been destroyed, its survivors rendered penniless, homeless and broken in spirit. Doctor began a crusade that ultimately would result in monetary compensation from the Florida legislature, a hard-fought battle won in the spring of 1994.

Like Judgment Day is the riveting story of these events, at once sadly commonplace and utterly extraordinary. It is captured by Michael D'Orso, a journalist with the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va., who has co-authored several other autobiographical and historical narratives. Adeptly juggling a large cast of Rosewood survivors and descendants, their assailants, dogged journalists, ambitious impresarios, compelling witnesses, politicians timid and courageous by turns, and the complicated rules and characters of the Florida legislature, D'Orso sustains the reader's interest throughout. He manages to keep us amazed at every step in a process that might have stumbled at any one of its numerous hurdles.

Newspaper readers and television viewers already know that the story will end happily, yet the details remain fascinating. D'Orso vividly captures each figure and event, resisting the impulse to gloss over inconvenient material. Arnett Doctor's mother's angry insistence that the Rosewood story remain buried divides his family, sending him into despair after her death. The Rosewood families quarrel over who belongs and who does not, over who appears on television talk shows, and who should get how much compensation. Nonetheless, D'Orso's readers reach the end of his book gratified by the Florida legislature's recognition of injustice in 1923 and his sprightly account. Would that other such gifted writers tackle the thorny history of racial and sexual minorities and the justice system.

Nell Irvin Painter is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of a forthcoming biography of Sojourner Truth.

Copyright Nell Irvin Painter

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