Newtown has been the center of the African-American community in the Sarasota area since soon after it was platted with 240 lots in 1914. But it wasn’t the first locale reserved for Black residents in the area. The perhaps definitive history of African-Americans in the area is a scholarly study, “Newtown: Past and Present: 1914-2014,” done by an organization called The Newtown Conservation Historic District Task Force. It was part of a project called NewtownAlive.org funded by a grant through the Sarasota County Neighborhood’s Department
A village and plantation known as Angola grew with a population primarily of runaway slaves and Native Americans at the confluence of what now are known as the Manatee and Braden rivers. It was destroyed at the behest of Andrew Jackson, then the governor of the Florida Territory, in 1821 as part of an effort to drive free Blacks and Seminoles from the territory.
According to “Newtown: Past and Present,” “Sarasota was a small fishing village in a swampy environment when the earliest white settlers arrived around 1842.” Florida was controlled by the Spanish then and the area was known as Zara Zote. A man named Robert E. Paulson surveyed and platted the original town of Sara Sota for the Scotland-based Florida Mortgage and Investment Company in 1885.
As the town grew, so did the demand for skilled and unskilled labor. After the Civil War ended in 1865, this demand began to attract newly freed African-Americans, who because of Jim Crow segregation laws had to have their own separate community within walking distance of all-white Sarasota. The first named Black area was called “Black Bottom,” later renamed “Overtown.” It was roughly bounded on the north and south by today’s 10th and 5th Streets and on the west and east by U.S. 41 and Orange Avenue.
Overtown until the 1920s had a variety of businesses, including a movie theater, so-called pressing clubs — which were laundries — markets, lunchrooms, and grocery and general merchandise stores, along with churches and mostly modest, one-story, wood frame homes with front porches. There was also a baseball park at 501 Lemon Ave,. according to the 1916 City Directory cited by “Newtown: Past and Present,”
This neighborhood became what is known as the Rosemary District, while the Black residents gradually moved north, farther away from downtown Sarasota, to the new area reserved for them, Newtown.
Newtown was approximately 40 acres about five city blocks north of downtown Sarasota at the intersection of Central Avenue and Sixth Street, bordered by 10th street to the north, Orange Avenue to the east, Fourth Street to the south and Coconut Avenue to the west.
Although Newtown offered more opportunity to buy land and homes and more space, it originally lacked the paved roads and access to electrical power that Overtown offered.