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Lewis and Irene Colson mural honors Overtown’s legacy

Written by on Sunday, July 23, 2023

A mural of Rev. Lewis and Irene Colson was unveiled on July 20, honoring the African-American roots of the fast-gentrifying Sarasota neighborhood once known as Overtown.

By Sophia Brown

Original Air Date: July 21, 2023


Official Transcript

Johannes Werner: A mural was unveiled yesterday honoring the African American roots of the fast-gentrifying Sarasota neighborhood once known as Overtown. Sophia Brown is painting the picture for you.

Host: The Rosemary District is a Sarasota neighborhood full of artisan cafes, modern bistros and laid-back pubs with live music. Just by looking, you would never guess that this very same land had once been home to Sarasota’s first Black community, Overtown, before the increasingly competitive market of a growing downtown and racist city politics drove Black residents to relocate.

One of the major clues of this area’s history lies in the Rosemary Cemetery, an all-white cemetery with only two exceptions: Reverend Lewis and Irene Colson, two Overtown pioneers.

But now, the Colsons and their legacy have been revived. Passersby in the Rosemary District now have a mural of the Colsons to look toward as a reminder of Sarasota’s history. The mural is displayed on the headquarters of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida at 736 Central Avenue facing, the street and right across from the Rosemary Cemetery, gazing over the past they had helped to shape and the future as it continues to take form.

The black and white photograph that the mural is modeled after was taken by Felix Pinard, who photographed Sarasota throughout the late 1800s and the early 1900s. It was left unlabeled and unidentified and shows a young Black man in a suit sitting on a stool outdoors with his hands on his knees. A young Black woman stands behind him with both hands on his right shoulder. These two people are widely believed to be Lewis and Irene Colson.

Lewis Colston was a former slave who is believed to have settled in Overtown in 1885, where he became not only the first Black man registered to vote and Manatee County, but also the first developer of Overtown in 1910. He founded the 28-room Colson hotel and co-founded the Bethlehem Baptist Church alongside his wife, the first Black church in Sarasota, of which he was also the minister. That church used to be located on the very same land that now houses the Planned Parenthood and had been central to the formation of Overtown’s community.

Meanwhile, Irene Colson had been a midwife providing, critical medical services to Overtown residents who weren’t granted the same health care privileges as their white counterparts.

This latest mural is part of a series by Newtown native Walter Gilbert, who has over the past two and a half years dedicated himself creating murals throughout the Rosemary District of Black pioneers from Overtown. People like Leonard Reid, the right hand man of Sarasota is first mayor, John Hamilton Gillespie. There’s also a mural of John “Buck” O’Neil, who was raised in Overtown and recently inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as the first Black baseball coach.

Walter explains that when he first launched this project, these foundational figures of Sarasota as history has been unknown to the broader community.

Walter Gilbert: When I started going around knocking on doors, asking people to allow me to put some paint on their wall of Black pioneers from Overtown, people were like, “What’s Overtown?” So it was a matter of giving people history lessons. Letting them know what this ground is in their living on and doing business on once was, and that’s the first Black community of Sarasota.

The hard part was getting money to do this, these things don’t jump up on the wall by themselves. But thanks to people like the Gulf Coast Foundation, Sarasota County Foundation, other private people that gave money, we are able to have five murals in this area right now.

Host: The ribbon cutting ceremony for the Colson Family mural took place last night in the Planned Parenthood lobby where about 30 people mingled, grateful for the air conditioning. Among them was Mayor Kyle Battie, Sarasota School Board member Tom Edwards, City Commissioner Debbie Trice and Mary Braxton-Joseph, the former Planned Parenthood board chair.

A lineup of local celebrities spoke to the crowd, including Senior Vice President for Community Leadership at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Jon Thaxton, a group whose donations in part made the Colson Family mural possible.

Jon Thaxton: The Colsons had to be secretly buried in the Rosemary Cemetery, right over my left shoulder here, because it was a whites-only cemetery despite the fact that Lewis Colson was one of the creators of the cemetery in the first place.

And I understand that there’s a lot of people in this community that are very uncomfortable telling this story of racial segregation and the uncredited efforts of the Colsons and other blacks and what they played in the building of wealth in Sarasota County that they themselves did not have access to. I’m not uncomfortable telling it. In fact, I think it must be told. [Applause]

WG: Jon, you better be careful, somebody’s gonna start calling you woke. [Laughter, exclamations from the crowd.] But as my mom used to tell me, the truth don’t hurt nobody. [An “amen” from the crowd.] And that’s what we have to do in this time that we’re in, is tell the truth. Because those fake people fear that more than anything else.

Host: Walter also spoke to the crowd about the significance of the mural’s location.

WG: It was by no mistake that we chose this building to put these people on, by no mistake. As you’ve heard, the church was right next door. Mrs. Colson was a midwife, which ties right in it what goes on here. They are buried right across the street. So this was not a mistake. This was supposed to happen.

Host: Stephanie Fraim, President and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, later joined Walter to second how meaningful the location of the mural is to the Planned Parenthood staff and patients, as the story of Lewis and Irene Colson is also a story of medical and reproductive rights through Irene’s work as a midwife.

Stephanie Fraim: [Applause] What an extraordinary, beautiful moment of connection, right? Connection to the land, connection to people, connection to this extraordinary history. And one of the things that draws us together is our connection to care, care for our community, because it’s the connections be forming these moments through this history to this time together, that builds community.

Host: The speakers were also joined by Vickie Oldham, the President and CEO of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, who praised the boldness of the mural and its location, but also acknowledged that there is more work to be done.

On Wednesday, the Florida Board of Education approved a new set of standards for how Black history should be taught in the state’s public schools, which civil rights advocates are saying obscures the full truth from Florida students.

Vickie Oldham: It was pretty bold about the board to say that enslaved people develop skills that personally benefited them. And it was pretty bold of them to blame victims of Ocoee in Florida, that massacre, those people who were killed when they voted. That was pretty bold.

This mural matters more now than ever, and I’d like to challenge all of us. It’s time for us to be bold, more bold, more disruptive, in creating more Black history products.

Host: Perhaps the most special guest of the night was Sonja Harvey McCoy, the 70 year old great granddaughter of Lewis and Irene Colson, and a living testament to the success of these pioneers. Sonja spoke about how, through the wealth that Lewis and Irene saved over the years, she and many of her family members were able to afford college educations.

Sonja Harvey McCoy: They had enough leftover to help me go to Hampton and my brother become a veterinarian. What are you leaving for those that come after you? You understand? And it is important that you know all of your history, as much as you can gather. And the reason being is you need to pass that history on.

Host: Mayor Kyle Battie also spoke of how the work of these early Overtown pioneers laid the foundation for Sarasota’s community today, and the ways that the effects of their hard work can still be felt.

Kyle Battie: I myself am right now fighting behind the scenes to preserve and to save the Colson Hotel. But it’s because of initiatives like this, that children can come to this area and see the legacy that they themselves are a part of.

Host: As the sun began setting, the crowd migrated outside to look up at the mural, tiny square on the front of the Planned Parenthood building, but a significant reminder of where Sarasota has come from and where it is going.

This has been Sophia Brown, reporting for WSLR News.


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