Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by author, Anne Snabes
Vickie Oldham wants Sarasotans to understand the courage and dignity of the African American residents who built Sarasota’s infrastructure.
Black laborers built the railroad that ran through downtown Sarasota, Oldham noted. They helped clear snake-infested land on the barrier islands to ready it for development. And some worked for John Ringling’s circus.
Such stories will be featured in the upcoming Sarasota African American Art Center and History Museum.
“I feel that in sharing these stories, certainly through a museum, it boosts my pride level in my community,” said Oldham, who is leading the effort to build the museum. “It gives me a sense of pride and place. It lets me know what our ancestors and the pioneers did.”
Oldham, the CEO and president of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, said her organization is planning to build a history museum and art center in Sarasota’s Newtown community. Until the building is completed, the museum will be housed in the historic Leonard Reid House, which belonged to a family that played a critical role in the establishment of Sarasota’s earliest African American community.
Before the house opens to the public, it’s going to be moved from its current location in the Rosemary District to a new spot, at the corner of Orange Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. After the move, some additional work will be done on the property, which the city predicts will be completed by the end of the summer.
In the meantime, the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition is bringing the museum to the people of Sarasota – by teaching local residents and organizations about the city’s Black history.
Moving the Historic House
The home was built in 1926 in Overtown, Sarasota’s original Black community.
It was the family home of Leonard Reid, the right-hand man of John Hamilton Gillespie, Sarasota’s first mayor, Oldham said. He was Gillespie’s coachman, butler and caretaker of his estate.
Reid’s daughters, Ethel Reid Hayes and Viola Reed, taught generations of Newtown children at the Helen Payne Day Nursery – now known as Children First.
The house was owned by the Reid family until 1995.
Its most recent owner donated the building to the city in 2020. He is paying for it to be moved to Newtown, where it will, according to current plans, be on the same property as the larger museum that will be built.
The Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, also known as SAAC, is leasing the home from the city of Sarasota.
The city's governmental relations manager, Stevie Freeman-Montes, said Sarasota has signed agreements with the contractors who will conduct the move. The contractors are working on obtaining the permits required.
Freeman-Montes said they will move the house in the middle of the night, by putting it on a large trailer and driving it to the new location. After it arrives, contractors will conduct additional work on the property, such as hooking up utilities.
“We anticipate the relocation to be fully completed by the end of the summer,” said city spokesman Jason Bartolone.
Oldham would like to start offering programming at the house as soon as it’s connected to utilities.
Teaching the Sarasota Community About African American History
Though the museum is still in the works, SAAC is already sharing history with Sarasota residents.
“I’m fanning out throughout the community right now, talking to civic groups and social clubs about history,” Oldham said, “and I have been very, very busy, all February long.”
During these talks, she and her colleagues discuss how their project of building an African American cultural center came about, and they share some of the history of Sarasota’s Black community.
Oldham also often leads trolley tours for an organization called Newtown Alive. The tours visit sites in Newtown and Overtown and convey the history of Sarasota’s earliest African American pioneers.