Newtown Alive Tour
Newtown Alive Tour

Get to Know Newtown Through its History

Learn about Sarasota's historic community and explore the Newtown African American Heritage Trail

January 23, 2020

Newtown Alive Celebrates History of Sarasota's Black Community

The African American community in Sarasota known as Newtown is a local gem containing the rich history of people, places and events that contributed greatly to the development of our beautiful city by the sea.

Former television host and college administrator, and Newtown native, Vickie Oldham, founded the nonprofit, Newtown Alive, in 2015 to highlight and preserve local African American history. She shared with Visit Sarasota an overview of local Black history dating back to the early 1800s, and opportunities to become acquainted with Newtown's vibrant heritage and modern community through Newtown Alive and neighborhood events.

Sarasota's First Black Settlement: A Place for Free People

In the early 1800s, when Florida was a sovereign territory of Spain, free people of color lived in a community called Sarrazota in the Tampa-Sarasota Bay area. Its residents were comprised of free black settlers, formerly enslaved Africans (some of whom were called Black Seminoles) and indigenous people from the Seminole tribe. The community, later described as Angola, was destroyed in 1821.

The African American Pioneers Who Built Modern Sarasota

African American pioneers such as Louis Colson came to the area after the Civil War. Colson, Leonard Reid, Wright Bush, and other families were instrumental in building Sarasota's infrastructure from the ground up: clearing the swampland to make way for development, laying railroad ties to deliver modern industry, constructing homes, golf courses, schools and churches; farming citrus and celery, mining dolomite, tapping pine trees to make turpentine from their resin, building bridges that connect the mainland to the keys of Siesta and Lido, nursing the sick, laboring as domestic workers, and shouldering leadership roles in the Civil Rights movement and in local politics.

Leadership, Resilience and the Fight for Civil Rights

Despite their contributions to the growth and sustainability of the city, Jim Crow laws segregated Sarasota's African American residents, who lived in Overtown, close to downtown, and were later pressed to move into a subdivision called Newtown. As a result of segregation, racism, and menial jobs, the African American residents faced the stiff challenges with resilience, determination, and an indomitable spirit. They educated children, developed their own business district, built churches and organized social activities with family and faith at the core.

Newtown Alive Honors History, Celebrates Community

Today, Oldham says, Sarasota community leaders are committed to documenting, preserving and sharing the rich and colorful history of Newtown. Newtown Alive began with a comprehensive research project. Starting in 2015, the Newtown Conservation Historic District research team began collecting archival photos, newspaper articles, and memorabilia, and conducted a series of oral history interviews with community elders.

To date, Newtown Alive has created a documentary short, the website, a traveling exhibition, a smartphone app, and an oral history podcast. The organization also created the Newtown African American Heritage Trail, a collection of fifteen unique historical markers throughout the community.

Explore the Newtown African American Heritage Trail

The markers deviate from the traditional green federal markers that are typically found in historic communities. Visitors along the African American Heritage Trail can take a step back in time to experience Newtown from 1914 to the present through photos, colorful graphics, and written content. In 2019, the trail was recognized as the southernmost point on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

Pioneers and trailblazers in education, medical care, entrepreneurship, and civil rights activism are themes that come to life along the trail. Information about how residents made a living and formed self-help and social organizations is covered. The historic trail also offers tidbits of hometown nostalgia: memories of the Ace Theater, the WWII era African American U.S.O., and photos.

Oldham also notes that Newtown's historic churches provide a telling glimpse into African American history from the settlement of Sarasota through the Civil Rights Movement and today. Visitors can contact Newtown Alive to schedule trolley tours and docent-led church visits along the Newtown African American Heritage Trail.

Newtown Alive Tech, Podcast, and Literature

Peruse the Newtown Alive website to find a map of the Heritage Trail markers, discover a timeline dating back to the Angola Settlement of the early 1800s, and learn more about the pioneers, residents and architecture that defines the community. Newtown Alive app users gain access to video clips, photos, articles and fun facts at their fingertips. Smartphone historians can also subscribe to the Newtown Alive podcast to hear interviews with Newtown elders.

Newtown Alive: Courage, Dignity Determination, a book co-authored by Oldham and cultural anthropologist, Dr. Rosalyn Howard, is available in all Sarasota County public libraries, and for purchase online and at the Reserve Coffee Shop and Chidsey Library at the Friends of Sarasota County History Center.

Plan Your Visit to Newtown

Barbershop owner and community activist, Jetson Grimes, grew up in Newtown, where his shop, Jetson's Creative Trends, has served as a cornerstone in the community for 40 years. Mr. Grimes' barbershop is a must-visit for his local history expertise and in-shop Newtown Historical Gallery — a time capsule containing Newtown artifacts and photos, and featured stop on Newtown Alive trolley tours.

Have an appetite for southern cooking? Do not miss the annual Big Mama Collard Green Fest during Transition Sarasota's 'Eat Local Week' in October. Competing chefs whip up brag-worthy batches of southern style, Cajun, Creole, and Caribbean collards to determine whose greens reign supreme. Save room for sweet potato pie, mac 'n' cheese, barbecue, corn on the cob, and juicy Gulf Coast shrimp at this soul food-centric festival.

Looking for fresh veggies year round? The Newtown Farmers Market sets up from 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. every Friday and Saturday at the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd and Cocoanut Avenue.

Newtown's Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, formerly the WWII-era African American U.S.O., today houses a state-of-the-art fitness center and gymnasium, Olympic swimming pool, a family swimming pool and water park, covered playground, computer labs, a recording studio, and other amenities.

Getting to know Newtown — be it through the community's fascinating history, its vibrant arts and local culture, or simply by saying "hello" to the neighbors — is a delight.

Plan your visit soon, and get a taste for everything Newtown has to offer.

Email us: [email protected] with questions.