January 16, 1995 12:00 PM

MORE THAN SEVEN DECADES HAVE passed, and still Robie Mortin sees vividly her idyllic memory of Rosewood, Fla., the thriving, almost entirely black village where she spent the first seven years of her life. “Rosewood was a town where everyone’s house was painted,” recalls Mortin, who was born Robie Allenetta Robinson 79 years ago. “There were roses everywhere you walked. Lovely. Lovely.”

Many Rosewood men, like Robie’s father, Nathan Robinson, worked at the Cummer sawmill in nearby Sumner. The women often served as domestics. And all lived in apparent harmony with the whites in the surrounding communities. “Everything around me,” Mortin remembers, “was happy.”

That illusion was shattered forever in early January 1923, when for a full week it rained hell on Rosewood. Like medieval hordes, an army of white vigilantes, some from as far away as Georgia, savaged the town of about 120 in a frenzy of arson and murder. “They killed everybody they ran across,” says Mortin. “They even made my uncle James Carrier dig his own grave with one hand—he’d had a stroke and one side was completely gone—and then they shot him in it.”

In the end, at least eight were dead, and Rosewood was reduced to ashes. For 70 years, Florida tried to pretend the town never existed. But last May, in what might fairly be called a delayed reaction, the state legislature passed a bill awarding more than $2 million in compensation to the nine survivors of the massacre—Robie Mortin among them—and to the descendants of the victims. It marked the first time in U.S. history that a state has compensated citizens for the inadequacy with which it defended them. “Had this been a white community,” says Steve Hanlon, the attorney who led a two-year fight for the suit, “the state would have used all its police power. You can’t condition police protection on race, which is what happened here.”

The Rosewrood massacre was sparked by a report of what was then the ultimate breach of racial etiquette. On Jan. 1, 1923, 22-year-old Frances Taylor, a white Sumner housewife, had burst from her house visibly bruised and screaming that a black man had broken in and assaulted her while her husband was at work at the Cummer mill. But Mortin, recounting eyewitness testimony from her aunt, a laundress who worked for Taylor, tells it a different way: “They saw the man come out. And he was not a black man.”

The truth, whatever it may have been, mattered little. The prevailing theory was that Taylor had been attacked by Jesse Hunter, an escaped black convict, who became the focus of an intense search. Led by Sheriff Robert Walker and a pack of bloodhounds, a posse of white men, many of them workers at the sawmill, followed Hunter’s scent to Rosewood but failed to find him. It was the following day, Mortin says, that her father heard a vigilante plot hatched at the mill. “The word was, ‘We’re going down there and wipe out those niggers in Rosewood,’ ” she remembers.

A widower, Nathan Robinson had passed off Robie to be raised by her grandmother Polly Carter and her aunt and uncle Katie and Sam Carter. Her two sisters, Sebie and Easter, lived in Chiefland, 40 miles away. But when the violence began to erupt, Robie and Sebie were visiting their father in Rosewood. And as soon as he could—just as the town was exploding in bloodshed—Robinson came home to put them on a train to Chiefland.

On the way to the depot, her father made a crucial decision: he took an alternate route, skirting the center of town. “If Papa had took us through there, we would’ve been dead,” Mortin says, though she adds, “I wasn’t really frightened, because he didn’t tell us anything.”

What her father didn’t confide but Robie soon learned was that her beloved uncle Sam had been murdered by the mob. Mortin’s grandmother was luckier. With gunfire piercing the cold midnight air, 69-year-old Polly Carter escaped on foot through the woods. Later, hiding under bags of mail, she was driven by a friendly white postman to Chiefland.

For reasons he never divulged, Nathan Robinson didn’t leave Roseland with his daughters. “I don’t know where my daddy went,” Mortin says. “We didn’t know whether he was living or dead.” He resurfaced two years later, however, and lived until his death in 1930 with Robie and the rest of the family in Riviera Beach, a predominantly black community on the edge of West Palm Beach where Mortin still resides in a modest rented house.

Twice married and a widow since 1990, Robie Mortin has three daughters and two sons, ranging in age from 64 to 36. All her adult life she has worked, usually in domestic service and often for the moneyed families of Palm Beach. For a dozen years, she was employed by the glamorous Pulitzers, first as a laundress and eventually as supervisor of their mansion. And all the while she observed a family edict set down by her grandmother: Never speak of the Rosewood massacre. “She felt like maybe if somebody knew where we came from, they might come at us,” Mortin says of Polly’s directive.

Apparently the state of Florida took its own vow of silence on the Rosewood incident. After some initial press coverage, the massacre disappeared from public consciousness for almost 60 years—until a lengthy 1982 article in the St. Petersburg Times, followed the next year by a segment on 60 Minutes. Still the state showed no interest in rehashing the tragedy.

It took Steve Hanlon to grease the judicial wheels. A 53-year-old partner at Holland & Knight, one of Florida’s leading law firms, he heard the story of the massacre from a casual acquaintance and took up the case on a pro bono basis. Working closely with him was fellow partner Martha Barnett, 47, who has an unusual link to her clients. Her father was the company physician at a Cummer sawmill in Lacoochee, where many displaced victims worked after the massacre. “My father’s name is on many death certificates in our Rosewood file,” she says. “I grew up with the children of many survivors.”

Once the legal machinery was set in motion, Robie Mortin set about staking her claim, with help from Richard Ryles, 32, a local attorney. Ryles was skeptical of her chances because of some sentiment against the bill. Fearing a flood of similar cases out of Florida’s turbulent racial history, opponents resisted offering compensation. “I never in my wildest dreams,” he says, “believed Mrs. Mortin would see a dime.”

She has seen $50,000 thus far, with the balance—another $100,000—due this month. “Vera, the lady at the bank, is after me to go shopping,” she says. “She said, ‘Miz Mortin, do something for yourself.’ I can’t think of but one thing I want to do. I would like to go to Greece.”

Mortin’s other indulgence will be to forsake the weekly paycheck she now earns as a nurse’s aide for housebound invalids. “Even if I do anything for my lady [her current patient is an 82-year-old amputee],” she vows, “I’m going to do it for free.” Indeed, Mortin’s first act as a woman of means was to volunteer eight hours a week of her time to Connor’s Nursery, a community project for babies born to drug-addicted mothers.

Trim and serene, with an easy dignity, Mortin is astonishingly forgiving about her childhood horror. “I knew that something went very wrong in my life because it took a lot away from me,” she says. “But I wasn’t angry or anything.” And yet it is clear that she will always carry Rosewood with her, that it will never leave her. “It was,” she says simply, “home.”


DON SIDER in Riviera Beach

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