Former Sarasota Mayor Says Newtown Has Changed, But Still Is Home
With the exception of the time he served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, Willie Charles Shaw has lived his entire life in Sarasota, much of it in the African American neighborhood of Newtown.
As part of our Telling Tampa Bay Stories series on Newtown, Shaw shared what the neighborhood was like when he was young, and how it’s changed over time.
Shaw, a retired U.S. Postman, is currently a Sarasota City Commissioner after serving as Sarasota's Mayor from 2014 to 2017.
Willie Charles Shaw:
Newtown is a most unique area. We had a number of occupations, like my dad drove a truck for a lumber company, and my mother worked as a domestic. And when I say domestic, she cleaned houses for various individuals.
Within the Newtown proper, we are the most diverse portion of the city of Sarasota.
Prior to going into the military, housing for people of Newtown was very open. We had more than enough housing. And when I came back, there was this new section of housing off of Central (Avenue), which was a cow pasture when I left, and the people who came in changed the mood, it changed so much of what this community was because many of them were seasonal.
Before Hugo Chávez and the migrant worker, black folk were known as seasonal workers. I don't know if you're familiar with Sarasota’s Celery Fields. Well, that was an area known as Johnson camp – it was an encampment of transitional people on the season.
With that housing and federal funding opportunity, these apartments had to be filled and they took those people, many of them, and brought them into the community. So there was a great transformation taking place, not always for the best, because we saw the great influx of the drug community, crack and everything else that came along.
I am a survivor of the crack crisis. During that time, I lost my only sister and it brought about a reckoning.
When I came into the arena of public office, it was all new, (it) really wasn't something I hadn't planned on doing. But then I thought back to a friend of mine that I had spoken to in the period of (my) military (service), and I told her that I would be the first black Mayor of the city of Sarasota.
Twenty years later, never had it dawned upon me that it was going to be – not that I was the first, but that I would become mayor of the Sarasota three consecutive rounds as mayor, twice as its vice mayor.
There's a cemetery known as Galilee – my roots are so deep here, I could take you out and show you Jerry Hempfield, who was a Spanish-American War veteran, were I to go to Woodlawn (Cemetery), I would be able to show you World War I (veteran) uncles, my dad; World War II (veteran) cousins and other uncles.
I have this great passion and love for the city, this community, and it moves me and drives me every day. Coming here, you'll come again – Newtown is a plethora of energies that is compared to none other area in the immediate region right now.
I tell people all the time, “Come here, drink the water, sleep in the bed, and tomorrow you'll be back here. You won't leave here without wanting to come back here.”
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 Mark Schreiner and USF student Garrett Shiflet produced this story. Conversations were recorded at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in Newtown.