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Website created to educate and foster discussion on racism

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Virtual Rosewood site re-creates history

By Mark Scohier

Edward Gonzalez-Tennant could be called a man of racial violence. Not because he practices it, but because he searches it out, hoping to bring it to the surface.

In 2005, that search brought him to Rosewood, a once predominantly black town in Levy County that was destroyed in a race riot in 1923.

Gonzalez-Tennant, a doctoral candidate and anthropology instructor at the University of Florida, said Monday, “Until that point (in 2005), nobody had done extensive academic research on Rosewood.”

Most of what’s known about the town can be found in a 1996 book written by journalist Michael D’Orso, he said.Other than that, “What’s been written about Rosewood is pretty scant.”

So in 2005, Gonzalez-Tennant said he began researching the property and U.S. Census records of people who once lived in Rosewood in an effort to piece together some of the town’s 50-year history prior to the 1923 race riot.

“It becomes a much more real story when the lives of those people are known about.”

In the beginning, he admitted, the endeavor was just a side project. But by 2008, it became his primary focus and the subject of his dissertation. Out of his research, and a desire to make information available to people removed from academia, came a website:  www.virtualrosewood.com

The website, though up and running, is set to be complete this spring, he said. The finished version, known as the Virtual Rosewood Project, will have an interactive 3-D virtual model of the town prior to 1923, digital documentaries based on interviews and transcripts of survivors, and other educational information.

“It’s to encourage the youth, basically, to talk about these issues.”

The same issues continue to exist, he said. As recently as September, the marker at Rosewood designating it as a Florida Heritage Site has continued to be vandalized, often being ripped out of the ground and dumped in a nearby swamp. He said state officials told him it was the most vandalized historical marker in Florida.

Still, he said, most of the overt “face-to-face” racial violence, such as what happened at Rosewood all those years ago, has subsided in America. It was, however, replaced with a quieter, more institution- alized variety of racism that, even today, drives a wedge between equal access by minorities to education, health and employment.

“It’s only the most naïve person who thinks America doesn’t have racial problems.”

What happened at Rosewood is a unique opportunity for discussion, he said. Not only is it a documented case of racial violence, but it’s also a case where reparations by the state, in the amount of about $2 million, were made to some of the survivors.

“It’s a good case study,” he said.There were lots of race riots during that period of American history.The summer of 1919 alone is known as the Red Summer because of 25 major race riots that occurred throughout the U.S. However, none of the victims in those instances, or potentially dozens of others, ever received reparations.

Rosewood is a way to address the larger social responsibility of racial violence, he said. “If we’re not addressing social problems, we’re missing part of our responsibilities,” he said speaking on behalf of educators.

In the future, Gonzalez-Tennant said he plans to keep teaching, though he’s not sure where he’ll end up.

“Wherever I go, I’m planning to stay involved with Levy County. It represents the South in many important ways. It’s rural, it’s sparsely populated and it’s managed to escape industrialization.”

Painting a historical picture of Rosewood, without the context of the entire county’s history, would, in some ways, be another act of violence, he said.

He said he also has plans to start an oral history program in the county that would rotate between towns every couple of weeks. Two or three people at a time could come in and talk about their experiences on a given topic. He said he’s especially interested in learning about lost towns and “alternative economies,” such as boot-legging during the prohibition years.

For more information about Edward Gonzalez-Tennant or the Virtual Rosewood Project, visit www.virtualrosewood.com.