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Florida's new laws may change how classrooms teach history like the Rosewood massacre

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Just over a hundred years ago, the largely Black town of Rosewood, Fla., was destroyed by a white mob. In 1993, Florida lawmakers commissioned a report on the massacre. The racial violence was so brutal that Florida became the first state in the U.S. to enact a form of reparations. The question now is, would raising the story of Rosewood run afoul of new Florida state laws that limit how race, history, gender and sexuality are taught in the state's public school classrooms? WFSU news director Lynn Hatter reports.

RAGAN PICKETT: I was always brought up in the presence of Rosewood. I always knew about it as a child. We went to the reunions every year. And that has also caused me to be politically inclined as well.

LYNN HATTER, BYLINE: Ragan Pickett is a political science student at Florida A&M University. She's also the beneficiary of a state scholarship for the descendants of Rosewood families. Pickett grew up knowing the stories of what happened during that first week of January in 1923. Her family passed those stories down through generations, and they attend a reunion of Rosewood families each year.

PICKETT: My mother and my grandmother - we've never missed a reunion. That fear of losing your family, losing everything that you once had - one of our No. 1 values is to keep our family first. And I think that has a lot to do with what our ancestors had to undergo in Rosewood.

HATTER: Jonathan Berry Blocker was in adulthood before he came across the story. The massacre began after a white woman claimed a Black man assaulted her. For Butler, (ph) a law professor at the University of Florida who practices civil rights law, the knowledge came through the 1997 movie "Rosewood," which chronicled the massacre. Butler was still in college at the time, and his father warned him not to bring up Rosewood with his grandfather, a survivor who refused to talk about it.

JONATHAN BERRY BLOCKER: It's a weird arresting of interest, of curiosity, because once an elder has told you, do not cross this line, you don't do it. I'm - what? - almost 40 now. And I'm just starting to kind of peel back the layers and understand.

HATTER: The story of Rosewood was a mystery to Gregory Doctor, too.

GREGORY DOCTOR: I always knew, like, during the Christmas holidays, after the first of the year, my grandmothers - they were very depressed. And I would always ask my mother why. And she said, you're not old enough to understand.

HATTER: Doctor didn't learn that history until 1982, when his cousin Arnette Doctor started speaking publicly about it in the early 1980s.

DOCTOR: For 70 years, they kept this embedded inside of them. I am very sure it affected them in some aspect of their lives as far as PTSD.

HATTER: Arnette was one of the original Rosewood descendants who helped seek and eventually win a claims bill from the legislature, which would set up the scholarship program for descendants like Pickett, the FAMU student. Historian Maxine Jones is a Florida State University professor who was the main author and investigator for the legislature's report on the Rosewood massacre in the 1990s. She wonders now how the subject will be taught under the new restrictions about race, history, gender and sexuality.

MAXINE JONES: I don't see why a student in high school shouldn't learn about, you know, racial violence. I don't understand why they shouldn't learn about Rosewood.

HATTER: Jones notes such conversations are almost guaranteed to make both instructors and students uncomfortable in contradiction to a state law that says people shouldn't be made to feel guilt or shame on the basis of their race and/or gender. Jones says she used to believe that the days of racial massacres were over.

JONES: If you had asked me this before, you know, January 6, I might have said no.

HATTER: Now she's not so sure.

JONES: I think the difference is African Americans are in a better position to defend themselves. African Americans take their Second Amendment rights as seriously as other people. Blacks will be able to fight back in a way that they couldn't in 1923.

HATTER: And she hopes it never comes to that. For NPR News, I'm Lynn Hatter in Tallahassee.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2PAC SONG, "KEEP YOUR HEAD UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.