Excerpted From: Jamila Jefferson-Jones, The Anti-woke and the Black American (Waking) Dream, 17 Florida A & M University Law Review xv (Spring, 2023) (96 Footnotes) (Full Document)


jamila jefferson jonesOne hundred years ago - on January 1, 1923 - a white woman in Sumner, Florida, claimed that a Black man had assaulted her in her home. That allegation was the catalyst for a week-long reign of terror that culminated with a white lynch mob reducing the neighboring all-Black town of Rosewood, Florida to ashes after murdering a number of its residents and forever dispersing the survivors left among its previous approximately 300 citizens. Those banished survivors whispered about the massacre to one another and passed Rosewood's history down through the generations but did not talk about the Rosewood Massacre openly. Eventually, the story of the Rosewood Massacre was forgotten, as both the media that originally reported the massacre had moved on and the survivors suppressed their traumatic memories.

Although it was founded in 1845 by groups of both Black and white settlers, by the 1920s, all the citizens of Rosewood were Black - except the owners of the general store. The various Jim Crow Era prohibitions against race mixing had caused whites to move to nearby Sumner. This state-mandated segregation allowed Rosewood to become a flourishing, autonomous Black enclave.

Rosewood became an embodiment of the American Dream for the Black Americans living there: it had a school, three churches, two stores (though one was white-owned), a Masonic Lodge, a train station, a turpentine mill, and a sugarcane mill. In grand American fashion, it even had a baseball team. Many of its residents owned their own homes. Some even owned two-story homes with pianos and other trappings of middle-class prosperity. Thus, as political scientist R. Thomas Dye noted, “[t]he Rosewood incident provides an example of a fully functional and economically viable black community that was destroyed as a result of white anger.”

More than a month after the destruction of Rosewood, Florida Governor Cary Hardee ordered a grand jury investigation of the massacre. The grand jury was impaneled on February 12, 1923, with the examination of witnesses beginning the next day on February 13, 1923. The grand jury concluded witness examinations shortly before noon on February 14, 1923. Twenty-five white and eight Black witnesses testified. On February 16, 1923, the grand jury reported that they were unable to find any evidence upon which to base indictments. Authorities, therefore, took no action against the white vigilantes who destroyed Rosewood. As the Investigative Team from Florida State University, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and the University of Florida noted in 1993, “Rosewood was a tragedy of American democracy and the American legal system.”

The story of the violent destruction of Rosewood by a white mob lay dormant for nearly 60 years until a 1982 series in the St. Petersburg Times reported on its history. The 1982 series went on to become a 60 Minutes documentary and appear in other news outlets. Despite its widespread reach, the series struggled to gain acceptance in both academic and political circles. Even in 1993, after formal investigation into the massacre by the state of Florida, many individuals still continued to deny that the Rosewood massacre had occurred.

In 1996, more than a decade after the St. Petersburg Times series, author and journalist Michael D'Orso wrote about the Rosewood massacre in his book Like Judgment Day. A year after that, the late filmmaker John Singleton revived Rosewood's history for a nation-wide audience in his 1997 film Rosewood. But, the people who were young in 1997 - people like me - are middle-aged now. This and other stories of Black attainment of the American Dream - though often fleeting attainment - are at risk. What is more concerning is that the truth of the purposeful destruction of the American Dream when it was actually attained by Black Americans is being subjected to the violence of state-mandated erasure of Black history and memory. Florida and Rosewood are no exception. Indeed, Florida and Rosewood are emblematic of this erasure.

[. . .]

As someone who has made my home in Kansas for the last seven years, I think it appropriate to quote the great Kansas poet Langston Hughes (yes, he considered himself to be a Kansan foremost). Hughes wrote Dreams - the first poem I ever memorized. I memorized it when I was in the fifth grade. I can still recite it by heart:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Hughes was not just writing about an individual dream. Rather, the poem also speaks to the collective dream: If my wing is broken, although you may not recognize it, yours is broken too. If there is no American Dream for all of us, then ultimately there is no American Dream for any of us. The anti-woke movement is a movement against awareness and awakening, against critical examination of the past and its impact on the present. It is predicated on a fear that truth-telling and a critique of the efficacy of the American Dream will result in division.

The current political landscape may dishearten those of us who value truth-telling as a predicate to justice and racial reconciliation. But I urge this audience - especially the law students - to take heart. I recently read the stories of high school teachers who are participating in the pilot of the beleaguered AP African-American History course. Their students are, of course, aware of what is going on in Florida. The teachers report that “[Florida Governor] DeSantis's objections to the course have only made their students more engaged.” One teacher has “turned the controversy into a teachable moment. He and his students discussed parallels between Florida's decision to ban the course and lessons they had already covered, including material they previously covered, like Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial discrimination.” The teacher described a dynamic classroom experience: “[s]tudents were throwing up their hands left and right, making connections to what we've learned so far, about the fight for equal educational opportunities for Black Americans.”

These teachers and their young students are not discouraged. They are taking hold of this moment and using their knowledge to connect the past and present to influence the future. I urge you lawyers-in-training, to do the same and more. Not only are you older and more experienced than these high schoolers, but your training in the law will give you a unique perspective and tools to push back against the current anti-woke/anti-truth tide. Former Howard University School of Law Dean Charles Hamilton Houston once likened lawyers to “social engineers.” You young lawyers-to-be are poised to continue the fight to engineer a society that works for all of us, that makes the American Dream accessible to all of us. I urge you to gird yourselves and to continue the fight!

Earl B. Shurtz Research Professor and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, University of Kansas School of Law.