NewtownAlive.org is funded by a grant through the Sarasota County Neighborhood’s Department. The North County Community Organization submitted a proposal January 26, 2016 and won approval. The overall initiative is part of a plan developed by the City of Sarasota to preserve the history of the African American community of Newtown, one of this town’s oldest neighborhoods.
The Newtown Conservation History District (NCHD) is an idea 10 years in the making. Former Sarasota City Commissioner Fredd Atkins began discussions about the need to document Newtown’s history in 2005.
The seed of an idea began budding as Atkins witnessed the redevelopment and subsequent gentrification of Sarasota’s first African American community of Overtown. Located near the heart of downtown, the African American community was rebranded as the Rosemary District. Recognizable landmarks of its history disappeared.
Dr. Clifford Smith, a senior planner in the City of Sarasota’s Neighborhood and Development Services department began working with Atkins and Sarasota City Commissioners to develop a plan to preserve the history of its African American communities.
Years passed. Newtown celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2014. Well-written stories about prominent community activists and pioneers appeared in a “Newtown 100” series published by the Herald Tribune during the centennial celebration.
The preservation project’s momentum shifted. By 2015, the City of Sarasota solicited written quotes from contractors. The work was awarded to a consultant, Vickie Oldham in June 2015. The “Scope of Work” defined by city officials included, but was not limited to:
- Attending a series of five public meetings with the African American community and a Newtown Citizen Historic Taskforce appointed by the City of Sarasota.
- Reporting to City of Sarasota staff and submitting written project reports.
- Present the project map, report, and research to the Newtown community, the Historic Preservation Board, and the City Commission.
- Meeting and working with a Newtown Citizen Historic Taskforce to identify:
a) The Newtown Conservation Historic District area and map the district boundaries .b) Document the history and culture of Newtown over the last 100 years (1914-2014).
c) Record Newtown’s oral tradition and complete the required narrative for a series of historic markers.
d) Develop a walking tour with an educational component as part of the project package.
e) Work with a graphic designer and webmaster to complete the final marker panels and integrated web pages.
By spring, 2016 the research team completed all elements of the “Scope of Work” in Phase I, also additional data. The report was presented to the Sarasota City Commission June 6, 2016. Assembled in one comprehensive report are details about the Newtown community’s origins and development from 1914-2014. Because the two communities are intricately interwoven, information about Overtown is included in the NCHD Project Report.
Primary and Secondary Source Documents
Our volunteers examined online resources and repositories in Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. They found information at the Sarasota County Historical Resources, the Cultural Resource Center at the North Sarasota Public Library, the Family Heritage House Museum on the campus of State College of Florida, the University of South Florida, New College of Florida, Manatee Village Historical Park, the John and Mable Ringling Museum, Selby Public Library, Bethlehem Bible Church and Genesis Health Services, Inc.
Examples of Primary Documents:
- Oral history interviews of 47 current and former Newtown residents . This is a limited sample compared to the total population of Newtown, but with the guidance of the Newtown Citizen Historic Task Force, a variety of people of different ages, social backgrounds and professions provided a broad perspective.
- Census records
- City directories
- Historical and contemporary photographs
depicting Newtown people and properties
- Handwritten letters, diaries and journals
Examples of Secondary Documents:
- Stories obtained from history books, newspaper and magazine articles, websites, and secondhand accounts.
- Drawings from photographs and paintings depicting Newtown people and properties.
NCHD Phase II
The completion of Phase II of the project is expected March 2017. The production of historic markers, a website, integrated web pages on the City of Sarasota’s website, a mobile app and brochures will be available to the public. Many African American enclaves have been absorbed into the cities where they are located. In most instances, the unfortunate fact is that all knowledge about the communities is lost.
Thanks to the NCHD Project, this will not be the fate of Newtown and Overtown. A permanent record exists that acknowledges, commemorates and preserves the history of Sarasota’s African American communities.