Our leader, Vicki Oldham, began the tour by informing us about the Newtown Conservation Historic District project that involved the writing of a report about the history of the area. The first part of the tour took us through Overtown which was the first African American community in Sarasota. This area is now known as The Rosemary District. We learned that the community was developed because of the restrictions put on African Americans about visiting the stores in Sarasota and the “Sundown Laws” which kept anyone African American from most parts of Sarasota before sunrise or after sundown.
We then disembarked from the trolley to offer libation to the grave of Reverend Lewis Colson, the first free African American to settle in Sarasota in 1884. He and his wife were credited with establishing the first African American Church where he served as their minister. As we stood watching Vicki pour libation on his grave and hearing of his struggles and the obstacles he’d met, his courage and resilience were brought home to us. We were no longer hearing stories in a textbook, but we were truly experiencing Newtown coming alive.
Boarding the trolley again I could feel a palpable sadness and need to reflect on what we’d experienced. Just then one of our leaders, Troy, broke out in spiritual songs such as Jacob’s Ladder and Wade in the Water. Our sadness was lifted as we became a joyous community. We were experiencing something together that was bigger than ourselves.
We then passed the first African American hotel constructed in 1925 to house visiting musicians and African American travelers who weren’t allowed to stay in other Sarasota hotels. The hotel was appropriately named the Colson Hotel.
As we approached Newtown we heard about the migration from Overtown that has become prime real estate for developers. There are two opposing versions of why this migration happened. One is that it was a “gentrification” project precipitated by some who feared having the black community so close to the town and the other is that there were many opportunities in Newtown such as the ability to own homes and a vision of a better life. With the entrepreneurial spirit, many African American businesses were founded and thrived in Newtown.
History came alive when we left the trolley again to enter Jetson’s which is a building owned by Jetson Grimes. As we walked in, we felt like we were in a museum with newspaper clippings framed on all of the walls documenting important events in the evolution of Newtown. Jetson and a friend, Wade, shared their experience of being participants in the caravan that went to Lido Beach in 1955 and entered the water in protest of the segregated beaches in Sarasota. The city of Sarasota offered to build a pool for Newtown residents in return for leaving the beaches segregated. Residents accepted the offer and the day the pool was opened, a wet caravan of residents went back to Lido Beach to wade in the water. They were eventually left alone to swim there and the beaches were integrated.
Throughout the tour we heard about the significant role that religion and education played in the history of Newtown. We passed Booker High School, a preschool, and heard about home schooling and the integration of the Sarasota schools; often at cost to students from Newtown.
At the end of the trolley tour we had lunch at Station 400 with several local residents of Newtown and furthered our discussions about the area as well as the beginning of developing friendships. One resident spoke about the difficult experiences of building businesses only to lose them through eminent domain.
As I left the restaurant I felt challenged about how I had gotten lulled into my comfortable existence on Longboat Key and forgotten the importance of connecting with our neighbors just across the bay. That night at the dinner table with just the four members of our family who went on the trolley, the usual topic of the quality of red wine seemed unimportant. Instead we were talking about the bravery of those who marched to Lido Key, the courage that so many had to build their own community and resist discrimination that would have discourage most, and the strength that so many have in Newtown today determined to preserve their community.
Knowing that I had to write this article I asked everyone to go around the table and share one word that came to mind about the experience. Here’s what was shared. Heartbreaking, deeply disturbing, uplifting, meaningful, sad, reflecting, soulful, detached, revealing, inspirational, new friends, great people, community, great singing, sitting with local people, poignant, humbled. Indeed, we’d learned many facts about Newtown, but perhaps more important, we were immersed in the struggles, celebrations, accomplishments, and disappointments that evoked most of the emotions that bring us back to what it means to be human.