First African American Mayor Of Sarasota Recalls Going To Beaches During Segregation
Fredd Atkins grew up in Sarasota’s Newtown neighborhood during segregation. He went on to become the city’s first African American mayor in the 1980’s, while serving on the city commission in the Newtown district seat, which was created several years prior following a federal lawsuit by the NAACP.
As part of our Telling Tampa Bay Stories series on Newtown, Atkins talks about some of the ways African Americans struggled in the community and the progress they have made since.
Atkins is now running for the Sarasota County commission. After this conversation was recorded, he filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging a redistricting plan approved by commissioners discriminates against African-Americans.
I’ve been born and raised here in Sarasota, first of my mother’s nine children to be born in Sarasota. And I’ve continued to live here because this is a special place for me and my mother is still here and she’s 101 years old.
Oh boy, talking about desegregating the beaches of this area. I had an aunt, she had her own businesses and she had a car. She loved the water, she loved to go to the beach. And so she was always challenging the boundaries of the going to the beach system.
I can remember Fourth of July mornings when we we'd go up to the colored end of the Skyway Bridge where we could swim in the colored side, and we'd have to be there at three, four o'clock in the morning so we can reserve a table.
We went from the Skyway Beach to Venice, Laurel beach, trying to get to the water because she, you know, she put all us in a car, her three kids, my mom’s six kids that were still there. It was the dirtiest, little nasty little places, it was always the worst areas of the water where you could get in where they would let us swim.
And then I can remember going to Lido beach when they had the little colored path that we could go between the grass to get to the water but we couldn't talk loudly or anything or we’d get ran away from out there. Getting told we had no business there, people trying to bust your tires, putting bottles under your tires while you were there. And I was a little boy, all this stuff was happening when I'm seven, eight, nine, ten years old.
And so during that process, one of the most funniest things on the inside of our community was that our leadership had agreed to build us a pool to appease the majority community that we weren’t going to go to the beach anymore. As soon as they were dedicating the pool in Newtown we were headed to the beach on Lido. So we were like, “We got a pool and we got a beach now!”
But this is a continuing story of African American struggle in America. We had to fight for Newtown in every way at every juncture.
Like to get a library. Oh, the fight that we had to get a library in North Sarasota near the African American community was amazing. To preserve our neighborhood schools was a struggle, like we are one of the few African American communities in the country that got our three predominately black school still in our neighborhood. We got M.E. Booker. Then we got Booker High School and we got Booker Middle, and they all within a mile radius of this place right here (the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex). Because we refused to allow them to take it.
First off, the city of Sarasota wasn’t used to spending money in the African American community in a major way. And so we had to get the mentality and the culture of the city of Sarasota to change to the extent that they would welcome investments in our community.
And so with that, we come all the way to the realization now that we’ve got a community reinvestment act that’s over the Newtown area. We have one and we are growing our businesses, we are training our business people, plus we are educating our community.
I would love to see some of the people that was blessed by the struggle come back and contribute with their presence, with their experiences, to help us raise another great group or generation like we raised them.
We need a greater consciousness of the people that have left and deserted African American communities to come back and start moving in and investing in the land because otherwise, it’s going to get sold out from under us and we will be a sign.
Telling Tampa Bay Stories is an annual series WUSF has produced for the past four years that highlights different communities around the region people may not always hear about. We tell these stories with help from the people who call these places home. This year focuses on Newtown, one of the first African American communities in Sarasota.
The series is produced in partnership with University of South Florida journalism students. WUSF reporter Stephanie Colombini and USF student journalist Sonu Trivedi contributed to this story. Conversations were recorded at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in Newtown.