Tuesday, January 06, 2009

remembering the forgotten

As we move towards Martin Luther King Day, January 19 (the day before the inauguration), I am reminded of the lost stories of the struggle for Civil Rights in America. Sadly, before MLK and Emmit Till there were a number of martyrs, victims of unspeakable violence that go unremembered. Before Rosa Parks there were brave African Americans standing for rights those of my race have taken for granted for a millennium whose stories go untold.

Yesterday was the 85th Anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre in North Florida. It is, sadly, one of the dark stains on the racial history of my home state, as well as the nation. Somehow, it has not gotten much press throughout the years, even the film version made little cultural impact.

Over the course of a week or so many blacks were killed or injured by a mob of whites from the region surrounding Cedar Key. In fact, the historically black village of Rosewood was destroyed, never to become more than a marker on the side of the road. It is a story that needs to be remembered, especially by those of us from Florida.

Yet another story I was reminded of yesterday upon hearing it was the anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre was the death of Willie James Howard, which also happened in early January. I first heard of this tragic story a couple of years ago while reading about it in the Tampa paper. Very seldom do I see stories about my home town 3 hours from Tampa in the bend of Florida as the Panhandle begins in the big city paper.

The story I read about a young black man whose only crime was sending a Christmas card to the daughter of an influential white man in Live Oak in 1944. He was kidnapped, along with his dad, tied up and taken to the Suwanee River, which I grew up on. He was killed in front of his father, who was driven back to work to finish his shift. 

As I read the story, I became aware of names that I knew. Those 3 white men involved in death of this young man were prominent in my community. In fact, I was friends with grandchildren or nephews of 2 of the names. According to mom, one of the families is related to us (but everyone is related in my home town). They were on the list of deacons from my home church and their names still carry weight around Live Oak.

I called my mom, who was born there in 1930 and she confirmed the story. She had long heard the rumors and stories, seen the men at church and knew their past. She told me that people used to talk about it quietly, but the gossip had ended decades before. In fact, she had forgotten about the story of the murder of a young man her age until I reminded her of it.

For days I, as a big city guy with Liberal tendencies was aghast at how close such violence was to me and my heritage. I was sure that people I had grown up in the homes of, celebrated holidays with, been taught Sunday School by and respected were involved in such atrocities. However, I realized that I would never know. I would not go home and ask people about their connections, knowing they would not be honest and those my age had never been told the truth. I was (and still am) haunted by this.

As we think about our first black President and the heritage of MLK and the Civil Rights struggle, we should investigate our own towns, whether South Boston, Queens, North Georgia or Virginia. Sadly, I am sure there are people in every place that need to be remembered and celebrated, their stories told and retold at this time of year.

follow the links from the blog title, along with those in the story to find out more about these 2 events.

No comments: