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Deep within Sarasota, Florida lies the historic neighborhood of Newtown, a community where thousands of African American residents flocked in the early 1900s. The Black community built their own safe haven in the quaint seaside town after Jim Crow Laws enforced racial segregation throughout the South. Formed in 1914, the neighborhood was once home to a number of bustling Black entrepreneurs who unified to develop Newtown’s thriving business district, allowing the community to become self-sustaining. When segregation and racism posed a threat to the Black community’s education and their ability to receive crucial social services, Newtownites banded together to build their own schools, churches, grocery stores and social systems, boldly reclaiming their freedom. Resilience and faith were undoubtedly at the core of Newtown’s indomitable spirit.
While the legacy of Sarasota’s forgotten Black mecca has largely been hidden from history and textbooks, one cultural historian is on a mission to document Newtown’s rich past and uncover the neighborhood heroes who stood on the front lines of freedom to ensure a better future for the next generation.
The story of Newtown started with a community called Overtown, Sarasota’s first Black hub filled with flourishing entrepreneurs, said the CEO and President of Sarasota’s African American Cultural Coalition, Vickie Oldham, who has been stitching together Newtown’s history piece by piece.
“It was located near the downtown area. Our people were the early pioneers who worked in the homes of the wealthy as domestics, as cooks, as gardeners, so there was already a self-sustaining community in Overtown,” she told MADAMENOIRE over zoom.
Located on Central Avenue and today’s Sixth Street, Overtown swelled with Black-owned markets, a busy movie theater, and merchandise stores that provided the community with everything they needed to survive. However, sadly, as Jim Crow Laws were implemented, residents of Overtown became segregated and were pushed to the north side of Sarasota, but they used their skills as cooks, developers, and harvesters to build up the community of Newtown, and they worked tirelessly to keep the neighborhood thriving.
Oldham, who is also the founder of Newtown Alive, an organization working to preserve the history of the rich Black enclave, grew up in the heart of Newtown in the 50s and 60s. She has fond memories of some of the neighborhood’s residents including her grandmother, Viola Sanders, who founded the Amaryllis Park Neighborhood Association, a community program where residents would pool their money together to create a fund for medical and social services.
“It was all about helping your neighbor,” Oldham explained. “If a neighbor had experienced a loss, and were grieving a loved one, my grandmother would take up a collection among neighbors. She would go door to door and just collect this money and put a gift basket together and give it to that family on behalf of everyone. It’s interesting because I do remember her loading us up in our old station wagon. I saw her collecting money, but I didn’t really understand what she was doing.”
In fact, Oldham had no clue that her grandmother was the founder of the community’s central lifeline. She was shocked to see her grandmother’s name in repositories after she and her team of researchers went digging to uncover fragments of Newtown’s history. The small but significant piece of information led her to discover a few more hidden gem’s about her grandmother’s vital role within the community.
“My grandmother was also a member of something called the Lilly White Benevolent Association. You know, it was an offshoot of one of those Masonic lodges,” said Oldham.
Dressed down in a white uniform, shoes, and a beautiful fez, Mrs. Sanders would head out every Saturday morning to her weekly meeting with the association.
“I learned during our research that it was a club, if you will, and they would pay dues,” she continued. “In our garage, I found some receipts of dues that she had paid that went into a big pot. The money paid for an ambulance service to transport black family members to a hospital in St. Petersburg or Tampa for medical services because they couldn’t go to Sarasota Memorial Hospital to get services if they needed something beyond, say, what a midwife could offer,” she added. “I was amazed. They were self-determined about taking care of themselves. They couldn’t depend on anybody else.”
Oldham recalled memories of a man with a flatbed truck rolling through Newtown’s narrow streets urging people to vote. At home, she overheard her grandparents debating about whether they should participate in the Sarasota School Boycott, a historic victory landed by Newtown residents in 1969. NAACP President John Rivers, another hero integral to the town’s legacy, created and presented a proposal to the Sarasota School Board pleading with officials to halt the dismantling of the Amaryllis Park Elementary school, where hundreds of children from Newtown attended.
Sarasota school board authorities tried to forcefully integrate students from Amaryllis Park to a formerly all-white school called Southside Elementary. According to Sarasota History Live, at the time, a study published in The Coleman Report claimed that “…blacks would be better off attending white schools,” but many Newtownites strongly disagreed. For them, Sarasota’s plan to tear down a pillar of their community was disheartening. Residents worried that it would separate children from their community ties and some parents even feared for their children’s safety as racism still plagued the Black community.
On May 4, 1969, 2,353 African American students in Sarasota County Public Schools staged a massive boycott in protest of the proposed closing of Amaryllis Elementary School. After months of toiling negotiations between parents and the federal district court, Assistant Superintendent Jerry Strickland submitted a desegregation plan, which included a voluntary mixed-race student body. The legislation was adopted by the Board of Public Instruction and Amaryllis Park was opened as a magnet school with voluntarily integrated populations.
We can’t talk about Newtown’s history without mentioning the incredible story of Mary Emma Jones, a civil rights activist, who in 1955, marched up to the city’s county commissioner’s office demanding for officials to open a “colored-only” beach. Black people were prohibited from entering Sarasota’s breathtaking Lido Beach, which Jones argued was unfair as Black taxpayer money went towards upkeeping the city’s lavish seashore. The unwavering freedom fighter teamed up with Neil Humphrey, the first-ever NAACP president, to organize a wade in protest, a historic moment that would later become known as the Negro Beach Issue.
“She was just this short little lady who was so powerful, but these lawmakers blew her off,” said Oldham.”So they started after church, loading up into a car caravan, and they would pick up young people at certain points in Newtown and ride out to Lido Beach. Some of the ladies, you can see in the iconic pictures that they were in church clothes. They were just wading in there to make a statement and oh my god, it caused such a stir.”
As protestors stood in the water, white agitators hurled the N-word and even threw rocks at them, but the irrepressible people of Newtown would not stop until Sarasota’s beaches were desegregated.
Today, Newtown remains predominately Black, but a large number of affluent whites have slowly integrated into the community. Sarasota has also become a playground for tourists looking to get away from the cold in the north and bask in the sun of the city’s beautiful weather.
Unfortunately, Newtown’s bustling business district slowly vanished over the years. Oldham said the neighborhood felt the harsh effects of the War on Drugs, which crippled the Black community across the United States in 1971. Crime increased throughout Newtown and many business owners were forced to shut down. Now, Oldham is working to revitalize the town’s once-booming business district.
“We’re known for our fine dining. We’re known for our championship golf courses. The weather is fabulous, but it is important to me that Sarasota is not only known for being a playground of the rich and famous. It is important to me that we are known for our rich African American history because black labor built this town. That’s why I have committed my life to telling their stories,” Oldham declared.
Members of Newtown’s African American Cultural Coalition are raising money to build a 17,000 square foot building that will house Sarasota’s African American Art Center and History Museum. The burgeoning project will store photos and archives about the legacy of Newtown along with the stories of the heroes who fought to protect it.
Currently, Oldham and her team organize trolley tours throughout the city that show the last standing remnants of Newtown which include the historic Leonard Reid house built in 1926. Reid was a highly respected member of Sarasota, who played a vital role in helping to establish Newtown’s earliest settlers. Visitors will also get a chance to see the cemetery where Lewis and Irene Colson were laid to rest. The married couple was largely responsible for the formation of Overtown.
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