Historic markers celebrate the men and women who championed community’s residents, schools and businesses

By Elizabeth Djinis

Posted by the Heraldtribune

SARASOTA — One by one, Vickie Oldham called up members of the Newtown community from the crowd in the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex on Saturday morning, urging them to stand by the historical marker commemorating their impact.

Here were members of the community who had provided some of the area’s first medical services, served in the first education institutions, worked on celery farms or as domestics to make a living. They stood by their markers, the bright orange edges of the poster reproductions peeking out from the plastic wrap. And then, Oldham said the magic phrase: it was time to unveil them.

The rectangular markers were revealed, emblazoned with titles such as “Segregation, Desegregation and Integration” and “Military Service of Newtown Men and Women.” More than 200 people lingered around the markers, looking at their archival photography and detailed descriptions of the community’s history.

“If we’re going to have an unveiling, this is the way to do it,” said Trevor Harvey, president of the Sarasota County NAACP.

The 15 markers will be installed in Newtown from late this month to early March, and will be placed outside prominent community locations such as Booker High School and the city’s Newtown-North Sarasota Redevelopment Office. In March, Oldham hopes to have a one-day event with trolley tours of the markers; a date has not been announced.

City and Sarasota County officials dotted the audience and Mayor Willie Shaw introduced each of the speakers as master of ceremonies. When former mayor Fredd Atkins, running for City Commission, took the podium, he noted that the markers were a long time coming.

“Over these last 35 years, our community has pulled this off, moment by moment, day by day, struggle through struggle,” Atkins said. “…We are sitting in front of those visions from the Saturday morning meetings. This historic trail is here.”

Almost all of the speakers urged the young people in the audience to remember and listen to the history being told, because it is their legacy to repeat it.

“If we don’t engage young people, then the history will die with the people in this room,” Harvey said.

Before the unveiling, 53-year-old Elizabeth Rivers Williams said just how much the markers had taught her about her own family members. Her grandfather, John Henry Rivers, had a history of activism in the Newtown community and paved the way for black elected officials like Shaw and Atkins. But talking with Oldham made her realize that Rivers had also been involved with the NAACP cars bringing blacks to the then-segregated Lido Beach in the 1950s.

“It makes me feel proud,” Rivers Williams said. “He was a very special man.”

When she saw the markers, she paused, saying Oldham “needs to pat herself on the back.”

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