Thursday, March 1, 2012

Joseph and Rosewood

This morning's scripture from Genesis is the story of Joseph's early days as a slave in Egypt.  His brothers, bent on revenge against their "dreamer" brother and driven by their jealousy, had thrown the young man into a pit and then sold him to the Ishmaelites, who in turn sold him to Potiphar, an Egyptian.   Despite his circumstances, Joseph's talents and favor in God's sight make him a valuable asset to his master.   However, his master's wife, who can't keep her eyes off this handsome slave, keeps trying to seduce him.  Then came the day they were alone in the house.  Once again, the woman tries to get Joseph into her bed, and when he refused, she grabbed him and tore his garment from him as he ran from the house.  And, like the brothers who could not contain their anger at their younger brother and his technocolor raincoat, she held up the garment for all to see and claimed that he had tried to force himself on her.   For this, the master has Joseph thrown in jail where he, again, proves to be the model prisoner and favored by God.

This story reminds me of the destructive tale of the town of Rosewood.   In the early 1920s, Rosewood was a thriving predominantly African-American hamlet in north central Florida.  Families had nice two-story homes with pianos, and porches.   The Goins and the Carriers were two of the largest families in the town which also had a Masonic Hall, a couple of convenience stores and churches.  People had moderately good incomes, some of which the women made from being maids to white families in neighboring townships such as Sumner and the men worked in things like the turpentine business.  But one day, a white woman  in Sumner cried, "Rape!" and accused a black man of having done it.  Fueled by anger and racism, a posse gathered and marched on the Carrier household in Rosewood.   Among them was the white sheriff of Levy County who demanded that Sarah Carrier, matriarch of the family, come outside.  The Carriers were holed up in the house, afraid of this band of white men on the porch.  When Sarah Carrier came out on the porch, someone shot her dead.  Inside, Sylvester Carrier got a gun, and fired back, while the younger Carrier children fled out the back door and into the woods and swamps.   What took place after that was mayhem.  The white mob, which had grown in number, razed the town after lynching a man named Sam Carter.  Officially, the death toll from the race riot was six blacks and two whites.   But the town's residents were forced to flee, their homes were destroyed, and the psyche of the survivors would never be the same.  

Today, all that is left of Rosewood is a road marker.   In 1994, the state legislature compensated the survivors, including one of those Carrier children who had fled to the woods on a cold January night after watching their relatives get gunned down.  Many of the survivors had stayed silent for so long, afraid that if they talked about Rosewood, someone would come after them. 

And the white woman's story?  Yeah, it was a lie.  According to the testimony of some of the survivors, those who were the help, as they were called, knew this woman was having an affair with a white man.

In Joseph's case, God was with him and showed favor toward him.   One might wonder if that means that God forgot the residents of Rosewood.  No, I don't believe so.  In fact, I believe that God was with them in the same way he stayed with Joseph. 

Take for example Minnie Lee Langley, the nine year-old niece of Sarah Carrier.  Ms. Langley's life was radically altered in those early days of 1923.  But she was able to escape, find employment as a nurse, and she lived long enough to have the state, that had turned a blind eye to the violence happening in Levy County during those days, make amends and acknowledge its racist past.   The bill passed with bipartisan support in both chambers and was one of the most amazing feats of lobbying by the measure's sponsors that I had ever seen.  There was significant opposition to the bill.  House Speaker, Bo Johnson, was going to be content letting it die in a committee.  But members of the legislative black caucus, and Republican Representative Miguel DeGrandy, marched off the floor of the House during a critical budget vote and refused to return until Johnson agreed to convene an emergency meeting of the stalled committee and get the bill moving.  Republicans in the Senate, thought to be the biggest opponents of the compensation measure, justified their decision to support it by saying that the residents of Rosewood had been denied their private property rights; thus the state should be forced to compensate the survivors.  It was an historic moment... and God, I believe, was there.

As we look around in our world today, where else do we see instances of little (or big) lies that cause enormous damage and hardship?   What will we do to make sure the truth is told?  How willing are we to trust that God can take what was meant for ill, and turn it for good?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling us this story.