Progress plans for Sarasota Museum of African American Art and History
Vickie Oldham wants the people of Sarasota to understand the courage and dignity of the African American residents who built Sarasota’s infrastructure.
Black laborers built the railroad that ran through downtown Sarasota, Oldham noted. They helped clear the snake-infested land on the barrier islands to prepare them for development. And some worked for John Ringling’s circus.
Such stories will be featured in the upcoming Sarasota African American Art Center and History Museum.
“I think by sharing these stories, certainly through a museum, it builds my level of pride in my community,” said Oldham, who is leading efforts to build the museum. “It gives me a sense of pride and place. It lets me know what our ancestors and the pioneers were doing.
Oldham, CEO and President of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, said his organization plans to build a history museum and arts center in Sarasota’s Newtown community. Until the building is complete, the museum will be housed in the historic Leonard Reid House, which belonged to a family that was instrumental in establishing Sarasota’s first African-American community.
Before the house opens to the public, it will be moved from its current location in the Rosemary District to a new location at the corner of Orange Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. After the move, additional work will be done on the property, which the city says will be completed by the end of the summer.
In the meantime, the African-American Cultural Coalition of Sarasota is bringing the museum to the people of Sarasota – teaching residents and local organizations about the city’s black history.
Moving of the historic house
The house was built in 1926 in Overtown, Sarasota’s original black community.
It was the family home of Leonard Reid, the right-hand man of John Hamilton Gillespie, Sarasota’s first mayor, Oldham said. He was Gillespie’s coachman, butler, and caretaker of his estate.
Reid’s daughters, Ethel Reid Hayes and Viola Reed, taught generations of Newtown children at Helen Payne Day Nursery – now known as Children First.
The house belonged to the Reid family until 1995.
Its most recent owner donated the building to the city in 2020. He is paying for it to be moved to Newtown, where it will, according to current plans, be on the same property as the larger museum to be built.
The Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, also known as SAAC, rents the house from the city of Sarasota.
The city’s government relations officer, Stevie Freeman-Montes, said Sarasota has signed agreements with the contractors who will carry out the move. Contractors are working to obtain the required permits.
Freeman-Montes said they would move the house in the middle of the night, putting it on a large trailer and driving it to the new location. After his arrival, contractors will carry out additional work on the property, such as hooking up utilities.
“We expect the move to be fully completed by the end of the summer,” city spokesman Jason Bartolone said.
Oldham would like to start offering programs at home as soon as it is connected to public services.
Teaching the Sarasota community about African American history
Although the museum is still under construction, the SAAC is already sharing the story with the people of Sarasota.
“I’m spreading all over the community right now, talking to civic groups and social history clubs,” Oldham said, “and I’ve been very, very busy throughout February. .”
During these interviews, she and her colleagues discuss the genesis of their project to build an African-American cultural center and share some of the history of Sarasota’s black community.
Oldham also often leads trolley tours for an organization called Newtown Alive. Tours visit sites in Newtown and Overtown and tell the story of Sarasota’s early African-American settlers.
Elementary students also recently learned about an important figure in the city’s African-American history.
SAAC, Newtown Alive, and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County have partnered with the school district to present a program to fourth-grade students on baseball legend Buck O’Neil, who grew up in Sarasota. Classrooms across the district listened to a virtual presentation by Kristy Nerstheimer, the author of a children’s book about O’Neil.
Oldham, who joined one of the classrooms, said the program engaged several of the students’ senses. They saw the author onscreen, listened to him read his book, and ate baseball snacks, like peanuts and popcorn.
“It was so much fun,” Oldham said.
The enthusiasm of community members for the museum
Odessa Butler, who moved to Sarasota in 1952 as a child, said the art center and history museum will help Newtown’s economic development and “bring more people to the area.”
“Years ago we had more black-owned businesses in the area,” she said. Hair salons, beauty salons and grocery stores are some examples.
Mary Mack, who grew up in the Overtown community in the 1950s, said she looks forward to the cultural center.
“We need to know the contributions of our peoples,” she noted. “It’s been hidden for so long, and it needs to be uncovered now.”
Mack said children need to learn “the real story”.
“Children of this generation need to know about the contributions that have been made here in Sarasota,” she said.
Timothy Fanning contributed to this report.