On September 13, Ringling College of Art and Design’s INDEX (Industry Experience) Center hosted a group of 37 for a historical bus tour of local landmarks from the history of African American settlements and struggles in Sarasota that ended in the College’s Newtown neighborhood. The guided tour was led by community scholar Walter Gilbert, President and CEO of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition and Founder of Newtown Alive Vickie Oldham, and Marvelettes singer Brenda Watty. The tour was offered as part of the INDEX course, Newtown History Book, an eight-student class taught by Creative Writing faculty Rick Dakan and Fine Art faculty Nathan Skiles. The class was joined by other members of the Ringling community—students, faculty, and staff, all received an open invitation.
The tour began with a stop at Lido Beach to view a mural by Ringling College Galleries Director Tim Jaeger, depicting the caravan protests that led to beach integration in Sarasota and the surrounding areas and a marker that offers more details from that history. The markers and mural are part of a large project to bring those stories into the larger narrative of Sarasota.
Between stops and stories, Watts led the bus in sing-a-longs of famous freedom songs. The tour wove through downtown and then the Overtown neighborhood, stopping to note historic sites like the Ace Theater, where local African Americans would go to the movies on Saturdays, and the Rosemary Cemetery, to visit the graves of Rev. Lewis and Irene Colson. Lewis Colson drove the first over stake into the ground to plat the land that would become Sarasota. He became a community and church leader there. The couple are the only African Americans in the cemetery, and their presence was contested.
The product of the Newtown History Book class will detail the history of the racial struggle for beach integration that took throughout Sarasota County in the 1950s and 1960s. Students from Ringling College’s INDEX program will lead the project in partnership with Newtown Alive, a larger conservation project organized by Oldham. The class will produce a 48-plus-page book.
Dakan said, “Every time I take this tour with students they come away moved and ready to share these powerful stories of our shared history. It was vital for our diverse groups of illustrators, designers, and writers to see these historic sites for themselves and open themselves up to letting the lived history inspire them as they begin work on their book.”
This project is a follow-up to a juried exhibition that took place in Fall 2022, in which students produced artworks on one of three topics from local history, chosen by Oldham and Gilbert as community partners for the exhibition. The chosen topics covered the school boycott of 1968, the struggle for beach integration, and the fight for single-member district voting that would allow African American voters in Sarasota to vote and have their votes recognized, which also led to the election of the first African American elected official Fred Atkins.
At the opening reception for the exhibition, Ringling College President Dr. Larry R. Thompson said: “We hope that through this project, we will help educate the wider community about some of the struggles and achievements of the Newtown community over the last 100 years. Ringling College has always had a strong relationship with Newtown, but this kind of public project helps further that relationship.”
Also that year, INDEX organized a group of students to assist in the relocation and reimagining of the historic Leonard Reid Home, which was also the last stop on the tour. The house was originally located in Overtown, the first African American community in Sarasota, and what is now known as the Rosemary District. The home belonged to Leonard Reid, a pioneering member of the community as a successful businessman, church founder, education advocate, and community leader. The house was relocated to the corner of Orange Ave. and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, just blocks from Ringling’s campus, where it is being transformed into an African American history and cultural center. The massive project was contributed to by INDEX students who documented the move and transformation, and designed the layout and exhibition displays for the center.