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Get to know Historic Newtown, Sarasota’s cultural heritage center, this Juneteenth

Tucked away between the lapping shores of Sarasota Bay and the charming, yet growing, downtown sector lies a cultural hub long shaped by the city’s Black pioneers and residents — the historic community of Newtown.

Recently added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 2024, Newtown is home to regional trailblazers like Sarasota’s first Black mayor Fredd Atkins. It’s where former Negro Baseball League legend John ‘Buck’ O’Neil grew up and is the home of the descendants of former Civil Rights leaders who helped to desegregate Lido Beach.

With modest Florida bungalows and green parks along its walkable entry points into the community, Newtown hasn’t yet been completely engulfed in gentrification and development like it’s grandfather, Overtown, the first Black neighborhood in the city has. However, Newtown is the heart of Sarasota and is a predominately Black neighborhood and its leaders are trailblazing the city’s cultural heritage in real-time.

Consciously observe Juneteenth, enjoy with cultural heritage sites and experiences, and learn about the historical contributions of the city’s Black pioneers, then and now, with this guide to Historic Newtown.

Large-scale murals where it all started to capture Black pioneers in time

Art scattered around Overtown reminds residents and visitors of the original footprint of the city.

Grab a local coffee and go for a morning stroll before the summer heat arrives in Overtown, now called the Rosemary District, the original Black neighborhood in Sarasota. Residents of Overtown were forced into the Newtown subdivision during the early Jim Crow era however natives and living descendants continue to honor and share the contributions of the trailblazers of both predominantly Black communities.

Throughout the mixed-use, budding arts district are murals of a handful of historical Black leaders of Sarasota, part of the Gilbert-Rosemary Mural Initiative, a beatification project spearheaded by Overtown native Walter Gilbert.

The bolder of the mural bunch is a 45-feet-by-50-feet painting of National Baseball Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil. It’s a bright rendering of the then Kansas City Monarch Negro League player and Sarasotan at 1468 Boulevard of the Arts. A second, noteworthy mural adorns the side of the Instagram-worthy Sarasota Modern Hotel at the corner of Boulevard of the Arts and Cocoanut Avenue— a period replica of Leonard Reid.

And speaking of Leonard Reid…

Draw inspiration from the story of Newtown trailblazer Leonard Reid

The newest addition to the fabric of Newtown anchors the region as a cultural heritage hub.

Sarasota’s African-American history, art, and culture can be found almost daily at the Historic Leonard Reid house— a 1,400-square-foot home turned cultural center. The space was the former home of Leonard Reid, the first Black settler in Sarasota. Reid worked as the right-hand to Sarasota’s first mayor and is accredited with establishing the residential area of Overtown, the community of Newtown’s predecessor. The cultural center shows the story of Reid’s happenstance settling in Sarasota, hosts art exhibitions, curates performances, and serves as a gathering space for African-American expression in the heart of Newtown. Donations support the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition which upkeeps the historic home and creates its programs.

Prioritize your health and wellness with Newtown Farmers Market new services

Learn how to forage or pick up local produce at Newtown’s MLK Park every week 

The small farmers market at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on Cocoanut Avenue is a great place to meet Newtown locals and purchase affordable produce and foods. The well-kept green space houses the market, and various community offerings like youth meditation and occasional performances, and unlike the larger regional farmers markets, is open daily (except on Sunday). Patrons can find traditional fruits and veggies and some prepared foods from vendors regularly. The latest offerings from Newtown Nation, the team behind the market, include a local food delivery service, food foraging classes, community nutrition education and increasing access to fresh foods to low-income residents in the predominately Black community.

Support Black-owned businesses striving for economic boost in the heart of Newtown

A small, but mighty group of restaurants and businesses to patronize in the growing district

 Marked by green space, Fred ‘Glossie’ Atkins Park, Newtown’s once thriving business district is reestablishing itself with the help of community natives turned small business owners. The small corridor was once a bustling business district is the heartbeat of the community with shops along the main thoroughfare. The district helped Black residents survive segregation and provided basic necessities for African-Americans in the city who weren’t allowed in Sarasota shops. Now, the district is home to a handful of Black-owned restaurants, like Stoke’s Seafood, Town Hall Restaurant, and Seafood Supreme, all within walking distance of the city-managed park. Grab a bite at other mouth-watering local restaurants, pop-ups, and Black business owners during Newtown’s annual Juneteenth Block Party this year.

Grab a haircut, talk with a Newtown legend, and check out vintage photos at a historical gallery

Newtown’s long-standing barbershop is much more than meets the eye 

A chat with Newtown native Jetson Grimes is an experience in itself. If you’re fortunate enough to catch the Booker High School graduate and community leader in his N. Osprey Avenue space, Jetson’s Creative Trends, well, you’re in for a treat. Grimes is Newtown-personified— he loves Lido Beach, sports, and champions for equity residents and neighbors.

Grimes is a guiding elder in Newtown, has helped to lead other trailblazers in his wake, and played significant roles in bringing resources like the Betty Johnson North Sarasota Library and Sarasota Memorial Hospital Newtown center to the predominately Black neighborhood. His dual space serves as the Newtown Historical Gallery and a salon in the business corridor of Newtown. Throughout the establishment, visitors can view a large display of documents, photos, news clippings, and personal records that Grimes has been collecting for safekeeping over the past four decades.

Book a trolley tour and take in all the historical sites with Newtown Alive

Complete your visit to Sarasota with an immersive, guided tour on wheels 

Through the years, the contributions and struggles of Sarasota’s to learn about African-American residents was mostly scattered— that was until a Newtown native and historian began collecting data and connecting the dots in the community. The outcome is an interactive, historical trolley tour, Newtown Alive. The open-air ride takes patrons to dozens of sites and spaces that helped shape the city of Sarasota while centering the significant contributions of its Black pioneers. The two-hour, $45 trolley ride includes stops at sites such as the Newtown African American Heritage Trail is the southernmost point of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

Honor the living descendants of Civil Rights activists with a field trip to Lido Beach

Lido Beach is beautiful, but also played a contributing role in county-wide desegregation

It’s not in Newtown, no, but Lido Beach plays a significant role in the history of Sarasota. Known worldwide for its pristine beaches, Sarasota County was one of many Florida municipalities that denied Black residents access to its natural amenities. In the 1960s, caravans of Black teens and young adults began protesting their rights at Lido Beach through wade-ins. Art depicting leaders of the Civil Rights activists, including Mary Emma Jones, greet beach-goers after a strategic partnership between The Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County and Visit Sarasota County helped to implement the historic efforts of beach desegregation in the county.

Culture awaits you this Juneteenth in the Sarasota’s in Historic Newtown

Though it may seem inaccessible or off-the-beaten, the community of Newtown is as vital to the landscape in the region as other parts of Sarasota County. Show the trailblazers, spaces and pioneers of the area’s cultural heritage some love this Juneteenth at a free, public festival in observation the nationally recognized holiday in the heart of Newtown. The annual Juneteenth Celebration and Block Party happens in the heart of Newtown at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Gillespie Avenue in 2024 and will feature live music, dozens of vendors, performances, food and a family-friendly atmosphere for all to enjoy on June 22.