Sarasota’s first Black cultural center edges closer to reality

SARASOTA – The Leonard Reid family played a critical role in the establishment of Sarasota’s earliest African American community. Now their home is one step closer to playing a critical role in preserving that community’s rich history and future. 

In the summer, the city of Sarasota, an area developer, Newtown Alive and the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition reached an agreement to move the historic Reid house to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. corridor in Newtown to serve as the starter home of Sarasota’s first center honoring the legacy and impact of its Black community. 

This week city commissioners agreed to spend up to $116,000 from local business taxes that were previously earmarked for a grant to help business owners weather the coronavirus. The funding will be used to help cover the costs to prepare the parcels on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Orange Avenue. 

GUEST EDITORIAL: The history of Black America by James Stewart

GUEST EDITORIAL: The history of Black America by James Stewart

As president of the Manasota branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, I am responding to a recent letter (“Black History Month provides education,” Oct. 31) disputing the need for a lynching memorial in the local community.

While the writer correctly identifies the name of the organization and its founding date, there are several misconceptions and inaccuracies that need to be addressed. What is now celebrated as Black History Month was inaugurated in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson to highlight the history and accomplishments of African Americans. However, his intent was not to restrict the examination of this topic to February.

Local branches, including the 350-member Manasota branch, were organized to encourage preservation of local records and artifacts. In addition, Woodson championed the dissemination of knowledge through a variety of initiatives, including school curricula.

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SEIDMAN: Historic house to become starter home for city’s first Black culture center

The Leonard Reid home will be moved from the Rosemary District to city land in Newtown to become the beginnings of the Sarasota African American Cultural Center.

It’s not every day you bring together a governmental agency, a developer and two organizations focused on historic preservation and cultural celebration and walk away with a deal that’s satisfying to everyone.

But that’s exactly what happened last week when the city of Sarasota, developer John Hermansen, Newtown Alive and the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition (SAACC) reached an agreement to move a historic house to the Dr. Martin Luther King Way corridor in Newtown to serve as the starter home of Sarasota’s first center honoring the legacy and impact of its Black community.

City commissioners, who voted unanimously for the purchase of nearly two acres at MLK and North Orange Avenue where the house will reside, were happy to envision a destination likely to provide an economic boost to the city’s predominantly African American neighborhood.

Hermansen, eager to develop the plot at Seventh Street and Cohen Way where the house now sits, was so happy to find a suitable site for the historic structure that he offered to bear the cost of moving it.

SAACC board members were happy to see their vision of a physical space in Newtown to exhibit, explore and celebrate Sarasota’s Black heritage, culture and arts coming to fruition much sooner than anticipated.

And Vickie Oldham — a Newtown native who returned from Atlanta in 2015 for a temporary respite, but stayed to become the one-woman force behind Newtown Alive’s documentation of local Black history — was ecstatic to witness what seemed like a serendipitous collision of that effort and the country’s current conversation about race.

“I thought there would always be a remnant of people interested in our history, but I never dreamed the country would be going through the transition and awakening it’s now experiencing,” said Oldham, who, with the city’s support of Newtown Alive, has gathered written and oral histories from Newtown residents and created a walking trail of historic markers, trolley car tours, and a book and website over the past five years. “My heart bleeds for what had to occur for us to get to this point, but it’s as if this is the perfect moment and it was always meant to be.”

Several steps remain for the arrangement to be finalized. The city will not close on seven contracted parcels until Aug. 14; a lease agreement must be negotiated between SAACC and the city; and the historic preservation board must approve moving the former family home of Leonard Reid from the Rosemary District.

However, none of the parties envision obstacles and the project meshes nicely with a $50,000 grant the city recently received from the National Parks Service’s Underrepresented Communities Program to help establish a Newtown Conservation Historic District.

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City of Sarasota Receives Grant to Support Newtown

The Newtown Historic Conservation District is among 18 projects nationwide—the only one in Florida—to be awarded an Underrepresented Community Grant from the National Park Service.

The $50,000 grant will give the city of Sarasota “all the tools in our toolbox” to put together the nomination to have the Newtown Historic Conservation District placed on the National Register of Historic Places, says city planner and historic preservation expert Dr. Clifford Smith.

“This is huge,” says Smith. “Being on the National Register means more grant opportunities for historic preservation. And it means it will allow more flexibility under the Florida Building Code; you’d be exempt from elevating [a structure] under the FEMA 50-percent rule, for example.”

Including the city of Sarasota, eight states, six Native American tribes, two local governments, the District of Columbia and the Federated States of Micronesia were the recipients of a total of $750,000 in Underrepresented Community grants from the National Park Service. This will help them focus on “documenting the homes, lives, landscapes, and experiences of underrepresented peoples who played a significant role in national history,” according to a NPS release.

Smith says more than 500 Newtown buildings, most of them “a really amazing collection of historic single-family residences,” fall within the Newtown Historic Conservation District. “It will be one of the largest national historic districts out there.”

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Pride of place in Newtown

It may not be a lot of money, but it’s a very big deal. And it’s earmarked for Newtown, a unique Sarasota community where folks have always known how to make a little bit go a long way.

Just as intense pressure over time can create diamonds out of coal, the brutal and self-sabotaging practices of chronic racial segregation — compounded by the blithe indifference of snowbirds and retirees flocking here from elsewhere — isolated and forged a close-knit Black community in Sarasota that is distinguished by its authenticity and a vibrant sense of its own past.

This month the U.S. National Park Service has singled out the Newtown Conservation Historic District as one of 18 recipients in its Underrepresented Community Grant Program, which “focuses on documenting the homes, lives, landscapes, and experiences of underrepresented peoples who played a significant role in national history.”

The $50,000 — one of only five grants that large in this year’s program — will pay about a third of the costs involved in qualifying Newtown for the National Register of Historic Places, which in turn would unlock the door to larger grants for preserving some of Newtown’s 500 structures that bear witness to its legacy — as a century-old home for Floridians who felt unwelcome and unappreciated elsewhere.

Especially at this present moment, when new generations of Americans are coming of age less burdened by the self-exonerating narratives that have long impeded progress for our Black citizens, honest reevaluations of our nation’s past are being allowed to resonate. Because of the singular combination of forces that created Newtown — not simply as a Black section of the city but as a coherent and largely self-determining community — it can be restored and interpreted as a living testimony to hard truths that we forget at our peril.

Years of neglect brought hardship and trouble to Newtown. But, left to their own devices, its residents rose up to foster pride and joy in their own community. Central to this solidarity were Newtown’s dozens of churches, many of which still stand.

Newtown Alive, a team of local historians led by community scholar Vickie Oldham, started the work of officially documenting Black Sarasota in 2016. The task force’s full report, available at newtownalive.org, describes the communities’ churches as centers of empowerment.

“The church offered a place of refuge and peace,” Oldham told the Herald-Tribune in 2018. “It was also a meeting place to develop a plan to deal with hatred head-on.”

This redemptive and courageous aspect of a shameful past is instructive for us all, and well worth preserving. Sarasota is fortunate to have this diamond in our midst, and this federal recognition of Newtown’s distinctive character could enable us to reframe that past more authentically for future generations of Florida tourists.

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Oldham and Williams: Newtown needs an arts center and museum

Cultural arts centers, museums and libraries situated in the heart of African American neighborhoods add texture, vibrancy and richness to a community. The facilities bring diverse people together and invite residents, visitors and guests to venture into underrepresented communities. Welcome doors swing open both ways for an understanding and exploration of the unknown and unfamiliar.

Beauty can be found in places considered dangerous and mysterious. Important connections can be made between institutions — arts, cultural, historical and educational — and students, researchers and residents.

So imagine if there were a place in Sarasota’s Newtown where our well-known institutions could make guest artists, collections, exhibitions and lecturers available to local audiences.

Issues of race, identity, class, social justice, history and culture could be explored at this community gathering spot. Programmers could organize interactions with underserved communities.

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