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New College students, faculty, staff and community members participate in the Newtown Alive Trolley Tour
New College students, faculty, staff and community members participate in the Newtown Alive Trolley Tour

By Yasi Bahmanabadi

Sarasota’s historically Black community, Newtown, is just a short drive from the New College campus—and it is rife with untold stories of racism, resilience and empowerment.

Every year, students have the opportunity to experience this history through the Newtown Alive Trolley Tour. This month, several students participated in a free two-hour journey through the Newtown area, co-hosted by New College’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (OOIE).

“For many years, Newtown was pretty much the only place in the Sarasota area where Black people could live,” said Bill Woodson, Ph.D., New College’s dean of outreach, who was among the trolley tour participants. “It’s a neighborhood that many people who have come to New College would never experience. But, I think, to be a well-rounded and well-educated person, you should not be ignorant of things that happened right within a few blocks of where we are standing.”

And what happened in Newtown, especially before the civil rights era of the 1960s, was not unlike what was happening all over the country.

Sarasota was one of many “sundown towns” found across the United States. In sundown towns, Black people who were found outside of their neighborhoods after the sun set would be subject to being challenged, arrested or physically attacked. In the segregated south, as well as some northern communities, Black people were also not allowed to share schools, beaches or other public services (such as movie theaters) with the white population.

Prior to the 1950s, Sarasota’s Black community was almost entirely concentrated in Overtown, a neighborhood now known as the Rosemary District. Overtown had its own businesses, its own school and even its own movie theater (the ACE Theatre). When white real estate developers decided that Overtown could be redeveloped for white clientele, at a considerable profit to themselves, they exerted their political and social influences to pressure the Black community to give up their homes and relocate to Amaryllis Park (which is more commonly referred to as Newtown).

As recently as the early 1970s,  Newtown was virtually the only Sarasota neighborhood where Black people were welcome to rent or purchase homes. Newtown is a majority minority neighborhood to this day.

New College and the Newtown community share important historical connections, and Woodson hopes to strengthen those connections through new partnerships with the Newtown Alive nonprofit and other local organizations (and by sharing those histories within the College and throughout the region).

“In 1967, for example, Booker High School was closed, and its students were divided up and sent to Riverview and Sarasota High Schools,” Woodson said. “Their much-loved neighborhood school, within walking distance for most Newtown residents, was shuttered, and students (whose families had, for a decade, taken pride in an important neighborhood institution), were faced with long bus rides to schools where they were often made to feel unwelcome.”

The students self-organized a walkout, which ultimately forced the Sarasota County School Board back to the negotiating table, and a plan to reopen Booker High School emerged. New College students and faculty offered their support, teaching in “Freedom Schools” organized by the Booker students, so that they and their younger brothers and sisters would not fall behind in their studies.

“This is rich and important civil rights history right here in our community that New College students can learn about and be inspired by,” Woodson said. “I think it would be a sin to come to New College, be here for four years, graduate, move on and not have a chance to understand this rich history.”

For Woodson, that history is also personal.

“My mother is a graduate of Booker High School—she was the valedictorian of the class of 1947,” Woodson said. “I was born in Sarasota Memorial Hospital, and came home from the hospital to the home my mother grew up in, on Newtown’s North Osprey Avenue. When I returned to Sarasota three years ago, to live full-time and work at New College, I was surprised that there was not a better understanding of the connections between New College and Newtown. I’m excited to see that there is recognition of those past connections and that we are establishing even more connections now.”

For more information on Newtown Alive and to book a trolley tour (free for New College students), visit newtownalive.org/book-trolley-tour.

For more information on the OOIE and its programs, visit ncf.edu/about/departments-and-offices/outreach-inclusive-excellence.

Yasi Bahmanabadi is an intern in the Office of Communications & Marketing.