By Bill Woodson
On a recent Sunday morning, more than two dozen New College students, faculty, and staff, along with a few community members, climbed aboard a trolley to experience community scholar Vickie Oldham’s “Newtown Alive!” tour.
The tour brought over 100 years of Sarasota history to life. The evolving relationship of Sarasota to its black community was front and center, looking back all the way to 1884. That’s when the Rev. Lewis Colson, a formerly enslaved man, first arrived in Sarasota. Colson found work as an assistant to engineer Robert E. Paulson, who first surveyed and platted the community that grew into the city of Sarasota. Colson personally drove the first stake.
The trolley tour included stops at the Rosemary Cemetery, where Colson and his wife, Irene, are the only blacks in a burial ground that even to this day remains white-only. The tour also stopped at Lido Beach, where we learned how in the 1950s blacks risked harassment or worse, using “wade-ins” to advocate for the right of blacks to use Sarasota beaches.
Tour stops also included Overtown, Five Points, Jetson Grimes’ Newtown Historical Gallery, and Greater Hurst Chapel AME Church. One of the high points of the tour was at Booker High School. Oldham, aided by community scholars Whit Rylee, Walter Gilbert, and Jetson Grimes, described the connection made between New College students and Booker, when Newtown students boycotted classes in protest against school board plans to close the school and bus Newtown students to Riverview and Sarasota high schools.
Booker weathered the storm, and the students stayed on track with their studies, thanks in part to New College students, who taught in Freedom Schools held in Newtown community churches during the boycott. Walter also described attending history seminars as a grade school student taught on the New College campus. Walter’s initial skepticism turned to surprise as he found that white New College scholars actually had a thing or two to teach him about black history.
There is another link connecting Newtown and New College. Anthropology professors Uzi Baram and Erin Dean, along with several New College students, played important roles in developing the research and conducting interviews with Newtown residents that would ultimately be captured and shared both through the trolley tour and the Newtown Alive! website.
Sponsorship of the tour was supported by the Mellon Foundation’s New College and the Cross College Alliance in the Community grant. Some of the students will be leveraging their trolley tour experience as a point of departure in a fall class taught by English professor Jessica Young, The City in World Literature: Globalized Gentrification.
– Bill Woodson is dean of outreach and chief diversity officer at New College of Florida.