Like many Americans, I had the opportunity over the Memorial Day holiday to reflect on the sacrifices of those who gave everything they had to ensure our freedom. It is humbling to consider the history of Americans whose courage and conviction have led to the prosperity and security we enjoy today.
Remembering the past is important. We just had the opportunity to walk into history a few weeks ago, when our Philanthropy team, along with a group of interested supporters, visited the historic Leonard Reid house, the one-time home of the Reid family, prominent members of Sarasota’s African American community. The house, built in 1926, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Recently relocated from Overtown into the heart of Newtown, it is the first physical space of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition (SAACC) and will soon house a museum of our community’s Black history, art, and culture.
SAACC’s executive director, the passionate advocate Vickie Oldham, was a lead on the Newtown Conservation Historic District initiative that researched the history and character of the Newtown community. She is the vivacious guide of the Newtown Alive Tours that teach participants about Sarasota’s compelling, complex African American history.
Within the wooden walls of the Leonard Reid house, SAACC will soon offer classes and programming aimed to shine a spotlight on Sarasota’s African American history, a rich and robust story of the Black people whose labor first built our cities, and those Black heroes and allies who fought for equality during the Civil Rights movement.
In remembering, we celebrate people and accomplishments in ways that connect our past with our present. That’s one reason that we have partnered with The Gilbert Mural Initiative to bring larger-than-life depictions of Sarasota’s African American people and landmarks to the Rosemary Art and Design District (RADD), once known as Overtown, Sarasota’s first African American community. These murals offer vibrancy and beauty to the area “just north of downtown,” imbuing the landscape with a colorful, playful vibe. But most importantly, they bring us the history of important local heroes.
Through The Gilbert Mural Initiative, we have brought into remembrance some of our region’s icons, like baseball legend John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, the first African American manager in Major League Baseball a Hall of Famer and the founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City (I had the honor of meeting Buck when we lived in Kansas City and it was thrill!). One mural features pioneering educator Emma E. Booker, the namesake of the Booker schools who opened the first school to educate Black youth in Sarasota. O’Neil and Booker both worked throughout their careers to usher in equality in their respective fields. In fact, Emma E. Booker was Buck's teacher in the 1920s.
Though these people and others are being immortalized now, many of our local Black leaders and innovators’ accomplishments were largely ignored, relegated to the outskirts of memory. Booker, for instance, was buried in 1939 in Gulfport’s Lincoln Cemetery in Pinellas County, the primary burial place for African Americans until desegregation; her gravesite had deteriorated to rubble, overgrown and unremarkable, until a group of Booker High School and civic volunteers cleared and improved it in 2017.
Remembering can be an act of clearing clutter to give us clarity. It allows us to contemplate the past and to contextualize an evaluation of our present, so we can imagine our future. The act of remembering can help us strengthen our aspirations.
With this in mind, our community foundation is proudly partnering with the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe for its inaugural Juneteeth Arts Festival. Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African American people, and was declared a national holiday in 2021 when President Joe Biden passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.
WBTT’s Juneteenth Arts Festival, held at the theatre from 1 p.m.-9 p.m. on Sunday, June 18, will host Black artists and artisans, food vendors and performers. It is a free community event that is available for all to enjoy. A screening of the film Playing Through, a locally produced film honoring the life and legacy of civil rights activist and golfer Ann Gregory, will begin at 7 p.m. I hope you’ll come out to take part in this lively celebration of African American culture and history.
I encourage you to enjoy the festival and take a stroll around Overtown to see the colorful murals and honor the historical reason we celebrate Juneteenth as a national holiday. Let’s remember the past to imagine a brighter future.
I’m curious. What is your vision for our future? I’d love to hear what you are hopeful for in our collective tomorrow.