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History of the Newtown Community

The following is a summary of the history of the area. This summary is based on several books about Sarasota and Sarasota’s African American Community. The most significant source is Annie McElroy’s “But Your World and My World.” In addition, information was drawn from the files of the Sarasota County Division of Historical Resources Archives. Newtown is the second historic core of Sarasota’s African-American community. As downtown Sarasota grew at the turn of the century and through the booming 20s, development pressure on the Black Bottom area, which was later called Overtown... and now known as the Rosemary District, created a demand for growth farther north.

From the early years through the 1940s, the street now known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Way was the thriving heart of the then segregated enclave of Newtown. Decades of disinvestment and capital flight, along with a concentration of government subsidized housing and social services, have caused blighted conditions in areas next to a thriving area of single family homes. Much of the neighborhood’s multifamily housing has not received maintenance, which has resulted in substantial deterioration.

Transportation improvements to U.S. 301 and U.S. 41 to the east and west of the area have enabled those roadways to evolve into major auto-oriented corridors, making travel around the neighborhood easier. However, businesses that were located along the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Way corridor have moved to where the traffic is, as has happened all over the U.S. in the past 50 years. Over time, a substantial concentration of industrial and social service uses have been located between the neighborhood and downtown to the south. Half of the northern boundary of the community is bound by industrial uses. These adjacent land uses surround Newtown, further isolating it from the larger community.

The Early Days

The original town of Sarasota was platted in 1883 and ended on the side at 10th Street. The Town of Sarasota was formally incorporated in 1902. The Florida West Shore Railway was built through the area that is now Newtown, bringing rail service to Sarasota in 1904.

Some of the early notable families include that of the Reverend Lewis Colson, a fisherman, surveyor, and landowner. In 1899 he sold the land to, and was the first minister of, the City’s first Black church, the Bethlehem Baptist Church. Frank Williams was the town’s first blacksmith. Other early families included the Mays, Washington, Bush, Carmichael, Roberts, Joyner, Wilcox, Albright, Herring, Jackson, O’Neil, Wilson, McKenzie, and Conley families.

The second oldest church in Newtown was Payne Chapel A.M.E. Methodist. Payne Chapel was established in 1907 when Methodists withdrew from Bethlehem Baptist to create the first African Methodist Episcopal Church. Other early churches were the Mt. Moriah Christian Church founded in 1913, the Truvine Missionary Baptist Church organized in 1918, the House of God Church begun in 1922, the New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church started in 1924, the Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1924, the Church of God in Christ began in 1935, the Hurst Chapel African Episcopal Church Inc. started in 1928, the Shiloh P.B. Church started in 1930, and the Church of Christ Sarasota Florida formed in 1932.

Near the turn of the century, only about ten families lived in the vicinity. The African-American population swelled as laborers and skilled workmen were hired by special agents who combed rural areas of Georgia and the Carolinas recruiting workers to fill the demand in Florida’s boom cities. Men and women came to be dockworkers, fishermen, chauffeurs, maids, laundresses, and cooks. They came to work the rails, the citrus farms, and the circus.

Willie McKenzie arrived in 1885 with a Savannah construction firm and worked on Charles Ringling’s ten story hotel as well as John Ringling’s Causeway. As families like the McKenzies followed the work to Sarasota, the City became home for generations of African-Americans. In addition to skilled labor jobs, Newtown residents came to be landowners, preachers, real estate developers, and teachers. Out of necessity, due to the fact that African-Americans could not get their hair cut, eat dinner, or buy clothing in White establishments, many small business entrepreneurs flourished.

Development in Newtown began in earnest in 1914 by Charles Thompson, a well-known circus manager who desired to make the quality of life better for Sarasota’s African-American community. One of the development’s original parcels lay on the east side of Orange Avenue with side streets Washington, Lee, Douglas, Dunbar, and Higel (present day 21st through 25th Streets). During the boom the subdivision expanded a few streets south and then to Washington Boulevard, then eventually north along both sides of present day U.S. 301.

As Sarasota’s Downtown grew, the African-American community was edged northward and Newtown replaced the original municipal residential area that once included Black Bottom. Later known as Overtown, it was bounded roughly on the north and south by 10th and 5th Streets and on the west and east by U.S. 41 and Orange Avenue. Overtown had constituted a complete community with small shops, social facilities, and religious centers such as the first church, the Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Prior to 1925, when the County built Booker Grammar School, the first public school for black students, African-Americans in Sarasota County were schooled at home or in churches. A high school was later added and in 1935 the first class four seniors graduated. Later, Amaryllis Park was added for first, second, and third-graders and Booker Junior High for seventh and eighth graders.

WW-II, Schools, and the Turbulent 1960s to 1980s

WWII saw an end to tolerance of racism in Newtown and the surfacing of years of quiet anger. The African-American community felt as a whole that because African-Americans had fought and died for the Country, they deserved equal treatment. Throughout the 1950s, this emerging anger became the impetus for change across the Country, including Sarasota. In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote his landmark Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, which prohibited racial segregation in U.S. public schools.

By 1960, Newtown was home to about six percent of the County’s population, or about 7,000 people. In the 1960s, Newtown flourished with several restaurants, grocery stores, service stations, a drug store, repair shops, beauty parlors, barbershops, and a doctor’s and a dentist’s office.

Three years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, schools were still segregated in Sarasota. The NAACP asked the Sarasota County School Board to voluntarily desegregate. In 1961, after four more years of inactivity, they filed a desegregation lawsuit in federal court. In the 1962-63 school year, the first African-American students enrolled in previously all-White Sarasota Schools, the first school integrated was Bay Haven Elementary.

In 1964, Roland Rogers, who had been Principal of Booker through twenty years of progress and change, was appointed to the administrative staff of the County schools. By 1965, the U.S. Government had tied federal dollars to compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The federal government ordered all schools to integrate by 1967. The Sarasota County School Board came up with a plan to comply, consistent with most school district approaches, by closing the black schools and busing black students to white schools. In 1967 Booker High School was closed, in 1968 Booker Junior High School followed.

Originally, the community supported busing as a step forward however, eventually; many felt that closing the schools had taken away community pride and identity. On May 4, 1969, a total of 2,353 African-American students (85% of the County’s African-American students) boycotted the Sarasota County public schools in protest over the proposed closing of Amaryllis Elementary School. Instead, students attended freedom schools in local churches taught by New College and high school students.

In spite of the turmoil of the 1960s and the segregation/desegregation conflict, several local youths achieved national recognition during this time. Howard “Slick” Porter, a Newtown resident, was the best high school basketball player in the region for the season of 1966-1967. Porter signed a scholarship to play college ball at Villanova, later playing with the NBA’s Chicago, New Jersey, and Detroit teams. Booker High School also won the State basketball championships in 1966-67, repeating this success three more times in 1977-78, 1981-82, and 1984-85. The reestablishment of the schools within the community was an important step in reclaiming community identity.

Recent History

In 1982, through the local chapter of the NAACP, citizens legally challenged a system of representation that had historically prevented the election of blacks to City government. Three years later, in 1985, Fredd Atkins was elected as the first African-American citizen to serve on the City of Sarasota Board of Commissioners. In 2001, Carolyn Mason became the first female African-American Mayor to serve in the City of Sarasota’s history. In 2008, she was elected as the first African-American to serve on the Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners.