Dr. Marvin Dunn, educator and racial justice activist, takes us to Rosewood, arguing a just society is born of the rediscovery & preservation of painful history
By Anjuli Castano, Samantha Schalit
Dr. Marvin Dunn is a man who exemplifies the phrase knowledge is power. As a historian of the Black experience in South Florida and as a doctorate of psychology, he unfolds the why and how of race relations with an authority on historical accuracies and the emotional consequences. His ethos is built on academics and personal experience that pronounces a Black South Florida which is resilient and progressive yet still processing intergenerational trauma and its effects present today. Like a true stoic he speaks with impartial sternness calling out the lack of historical awareness about who South Florida is. When asked what impact knowing Black history has on our youth, he responded anti-humorously, reiterating the question as if to confirm.
“What impact?” he responded. “Well, none that I can say because they don’t know it.” The weight of this assertion falls on us all who do not know the Black men and women whose hands constructed this city of limestone and coral. Or how they shaped its emerging culture with rich Caribbean and African descendance; their influence, more than their presence, cut through mosquito clouds and thick marshes to transform the Miami we’ve come to know.
This reality demands a different mode of questioning. The real question is: What would be? With a slight smile, Dr. Dunn said, “Good question. They would be proud.”
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Florida is a unique place in the development of Black History in the South. Under Spanish colonization, enslaved men and women sought freedom that allegiance to the Spanish crown and Catholicism granted in Florida. The wild vegetation and wet
lands became a refuge, a place where once-enslaved people could work for a wage and create community in towns like St. Augustine. And through the construction of emerging cities, Black voters were imperative in the numbers required for incorporation. In the case of Miami, 162 of the nearly 400 men who incorporated the Magic City were men of color. Suffrage for the Black man did not mean an end to the battle for equality and justice, but the spirit of Black resistance has always been strong in South Florida; it’s present in landmarks like the historic Virginia Key Beach and Overtown, originally called Colored Town.
Further north of the industrial and commercial boom in South Florida, a strong figure of Black progression lived. The town of Rosewood, a few miles inland from the Gulf Coast, was a fruitful Black neighborhood that flourished in the lumber industry and exhibited a unique economic and cultural freedom for the time. Those who remember it tell of the large white houses and tall cedar trees which enveloped a lively and interconnected community. Dunn interviewed Rosewood survivor Robie Mortin, who said, “Everybody had something going. People owned acres of land, not just lots, and the houses were mostly two-story houses. The white folks really wanted those houses.” This richness lasted from the early 1900s to 1923 when the town and its people were massacred by a group of white men from a neighboring town.
Throughout history, segregation, redlining, and gentrification have all been tools used to erase examples of Black progression. “Rosewood now has no Black people, it is completely gentrified,” Dunn said. The displacement of Black people from the area does not eradicate Rosewood's Black history. Dunn purchased five acres of Rosewood, preserving a piece of the old Seaboard Air Line Railway.
“Unless I hold on to those five acres, any trace of the railroad will be gone.”
Dunn is transforming the land into a historic park, placing benches where the railroad ran through and leaving the rest of the land as-is. Commemorating the lingering presence of this railroad preserves and punctuates a period of both prosperity and great injustice in Florida Black history.
The Rosewood Massacre is just one example of Dunn’s extensive wealth of historical knowledge exhibited on his website, a digital museum accessible to all. In the narratives and discussions, researched by Dunn, we find a Florida history otherwise obscured and a call to change that. The histories forgotten are given new life with topics ranging from Civil Rights to Seminole and Black community relations, many of them still holding relevance today.
At his core, Dr. Dunn is an educator and a champion of integrity in honest portrayals of historical events. He says he studied psychology in university to better understand racism and its roots and motivations. Through his schooling he has come to learn a new side to his struggle.
“I knew about the struggle for power, for land, for political positions. But what I learned was that there are dramatic strains that cut through all of these, mostly based upon fear. And that is a very dangerous motivator,” he said. The foundation of our divisions is fear of each other; when we are alienated from other people’s histories, we are estranged from others’ humanity and find justification to fear them.
Dunn was able to hold onto his history because of his proximity to it. “I knew Jim Crow,” he writes. “I grew up in Florida under his dark, suffocating wings. I knew him intimately, as did every Black person I knew growing up in Deland and Miami in the 1940s and 50s.”
Since September 2020, more than 25 states (including Florida) have introduced legislation to restrict what can be taught about US history in schools and universities, taking aim at critical race theory. This has a chilling effect on conversations about race relations in the United States. Without these histories, we face a divided and unjust future void of the stories that contextualize the pain points experienced today by our diverse populations in schools, workplaces, and social systems.
“Through learning Black history non-Black people learn about the challenges that Black people have had in this city and are more open to developing reparations.” This effort is for all to consider, as Dunn continues, “We who are Black should learn more about Appalachian or Cuban history so we better know what we’ve all given to this community. It makes us better citizens.”
As Dunn says, “it is important to keep the symbol of the struggle,” so we do not forget the great lengths those before us went to demand the civil liberties we know to be natural in democratic society. We must not look away at the threats to these institutions which bubble up in times of tension. Fear of your neighbor will hold progress hostage. Working together to build respect and tolerance will unleash it.