SARASOTA — The history of Sarasota's Black pioneers and early residents continues to come to life through an initiative led by Newtown native Walter Gilbert in the city's first Black community, the historic Overtown neighborhood, now called the Rosemary District.
The stories of four Overtown residents and pioneers are breathing life into the heart of Sarasota through a series of large-scale murals honoring the legacy and contributions of some of the city's historical Black figures.
"I don’t want to only educate people about who was here and how everything went down but also help these people to be recognized for their contributions," Gilbert said.
Gilbert is a native of the historic Overtown community and grew up in the area that was once a bustling community of Black business owners, skilled tradesmen, and city leaders.
The Gilbert Mural Initiative, also referred to as the Overtown Mural Initiative, uses public art to highlight the spectrum of his evolving neighborhood on the walls of historic buildings in the neighborhood just north of downtown Sarasota. With support from the Rosemary Arts & Design District (RADD), the city of Sarasota, and the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition (SAACC), the initiative was launched in 2021, and the city saw its first two pieces, a 40-foot rendering of John "Buck" O'Neil and 25-foot mural of beloved educator Emma E. Booker, go up last summer.
Now, Gilbert and the program's supporters are unveiling the final people to be immortalized in the Rosemary District — Rev. Lewis and Irene Colson and Leonard Reid.
Lewis Colson came in 1885 and drove the stake at Five Points as he helped in platting the city of Sarasota, according to Newtown Alive's history of the community. Colson would go on to become the first developer of Overtown, now the Rosemary District, in 1910.
Colson assisted with the construction of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Sarasota's first Black church. The original site of the church was laid in 1899 where it remained until 1973, on the corner of today's 7th Street and Central Avenue.
According to Gilbert, upon his death, Colson was buried in the back of the Rosemary Cemetery, the first time a Black resident was buried there.
"The white residents weren't happy about that at that time," Gilbert said. "They asked (his family) to have him removed and buried elsewhere, but the Black residents refused and told them that his wife would be buried there as well. The Black residents were able to have Irene buried there with her husband ... that's why to this day the Colsons are the only two Black people buried in that Rosemary Cemetery."
Gilbert, who works as vice-president for diversity and inclusion at Selby Gardens, was on site on June 30 to ensure the final touches to the Colsons' 10 x 10-foot mural, an enlarged version of one of the rare images of them, by local graphics and imaging company, SpeedPro.
Located on the top left corner of the Planned Parenthood building at 736 Central Ave., the Colson mural is featured adjacent to the Rosemary Cemetery, ensuring their legacy is remembered and recognized today Gilbert said.
Leonard Reid remembered at first home site
A few blocks away from the Colson mural, another of Sarasota's trailblazing Leonard Reid covers a span of the wall on the side of the Sarasota Modern Hotel.
Reid arrived in Sarasota by chance in the early 1920s and worked as the right-hand man of John Hamilton Gillespie, Sarasota’s first mayor. Reid was Gillespie’s coachman, butler, and caretaker of his estate.
His now historic 1,400-square-foot home was built at what was originally 1435 7th St. anchoring the Overtown community.
Last May, Reid's home was moved across downtown Sarasota to its permanent site in Newtown, Sarastoa's predominantly Black community. The Reid home now serves as the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition's museum, which is set to open later in 2023.
Gilbert is particularly fond of the Reid mural, which was funded by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.
"The Reid mural portrays a time that you don’t normally think about when you think about Sarasota. He’s driving a horse and buggy… that tells you how long ago these people were here. His mural gives you a real perspective of how long we’ve been here working and building this city,” he said.
Being one of the remaining residents from the generation that saw both Overtown and its offshoot, Newtown, change due to gentrification, development, and regulation, Gilbert hopes the murals will help residents and visitors remember those who made today's Sarasota possible.
"I remember what the community was and what was out there. This initiative came together because I had to think of a way to honor those people that built that first Black community. Those are the same people that built Sarasota. Even though, at the time, they were segregated… they built Sarasota and they are important to remember and have their community remembered. They couldn’t go downtown, they couldn’t go in those shops, they had to have their own, and they did in Overtown.”
Rosemary District Association president and founder of DreamLarge, Anand Pallegar, believes the mural project not only enhances the neighborhood through public art and education but keeps those early pioneers' legacies alive, just as Gilbert and the project supporters intended.
"From the beginning, RADD had championed the history of Overtown by recognizing the individuals who established it. The photorealistic reliefs of the Colsons and Mr. Reid offer a glimpse into their lives during this era and celebrates the rich history of a community largely forgotten," Pallegar said.
"As the neighborhood continues to evolve we look forward to blending more contemporary murals with historic figureheads to reinforce our role as the most creative neighborhood in the city of Sarasota."
The mural initiative is slated to add four other works in historic buildings in the neighborhood. The next set of murals will showcase different spaces and specific periods of history in Overtown.