Sarasota's first black settler was Lewis Colson. Colson came to Sarasota in 1884 to assist Richard E. Paulson, an engineer for the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, in surveying the town of Sarasota.
A former slave, Colson remained in Sarasota throughout his life, contributing to the development of the community in many ways. The picture above is believed to be of Colson with his wife, Irene. It is among many unidentified photographs by Felix Pinard, who photographed Sarasota in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Lewis and Irene Colson started Sarasota's first black community in 1910. It consisted of several families. The Colsons also helped organize Sarasota's first black church, the Bethlehem Baptist Church, by selling land to the church trustees for one dollar. The church was built on the corner of today's Seventh Street and Central Avenue in 1899, and remained there until 1973. The hub of Sarasota's first black community, which came to be known as Overtown, was at the intersection of Central Avenue and Sixth Street. According to early maps of the area, by the mid-1920s, a thriving residential and business district existed there.
Businesses included a movie theater, pressing clubs, markets, lunch rooms, and grocery and general merchandise stores. Residences varied in size, but most were modest, one-story, wood frame structures with front porches. There was also a baseball park at 501 Lemon Avenue, according to the 1916 City Directory. The Colson Hotel was one of two hotels in the immediate area. Built by E.O. Burns and opened late in 1926, the hotel was for black tourists and residents. It was located on Eight Street just off Central Avenue. Described by the Sarasota Herald in an article dated December 15, 1926, the hotel was constructed of fine yellow stucco on hollow tile. The hotel contained 28 rooms and had a comfortable lobby with fireplace. Later it was named the Hotel Palm.
According to Annie M. McElroy in her book, "But Your World and My World," classes for blacks were first conducted in the Knights of Pythias Hall. The Knights of Pythias was a local fraternal organization at 404 Coconut Avenue in 1916. In 1925 the Sarasota Grammar School was built. This school was on Seventh Street east of Central Avenue. The school was renamed Booker Grammar School in honor of its first principal, Emma E. Booker.
By 1930, classes for blacks had been consolidated on the Booker campus, and in 1935 Booker High School's first class graduated with four students. Over time, many in Sarasota's black community moved north to today's Newtown area. The Sarasota Times reported in 1915 that C.N. Thompson and his son, Russell, had opened a subdivision of four acres named Newtown three-quarters of a mile north of town outside city limits. According to the Times, the subdivision had 240 lots, a few of which were donated for a Methodist and Baptist church and school houses. The developers declared that the deeds would be given whenever the buildings were erected.
By the mid-1920s, Newtown Heights, an addition to Newtown, was developing to meet the need for housing in the black community. An article in "This Week in Sarasota," a promotional publication about Sarasota, reported that real estate values had increased so dramatically along Central Avenue that, day by day, residences were being replaced by businesses.
Today, as revitalization efforts continue along Central Avenue, residents have a rich historical precedent to draw upon.
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