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A black and white Sarasota.

Dark days in Sarasota history.

It's easy to look back on Sarasota's yesteryears with fond nostalgia for simpler, happier times. But those idyllic days we recall so wistfully never existed for many Sarasotans -- our black citizens. For all Sarasota's attractions in those bygone years, it was still a small town in the South, and to the blacks who lived here, the good old days were often not very good at all.

The Roaring '20s were particularly difficult. The era that was notable for the real estate boom that transformed Sarasota from a dusty fishing village into a destination for the rich and the famous also saw the national resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

There were no lynchings in Sarasota, although accounts of them in other parts of the South were regularly featured in the local paper. But Klan Number 72 of the Invisible Empire was alive and well here and its activities were often reported in the Sarasota Times and the Sarasota Herald.

The papers also printed Klan advertisements: "NO HONEST RIGHT THINKING, WHITE American can CONSCIENTIOUSLY oppose the Knights." The Klan explained they stood, "not to crush the downtrodden, but to PROTECT THE WEAK, ASSIST THE NEEDY and to succor the distressed."

Klan parades were well-attended. "KU KLUX KLAN OUT ON PARADE," ran a news story. "By 7:30, Five Points was a moving mass of people anxiously awaiting for the parade of hidden faces to start."

In an effort to raise money to build a "Klavern |Klan headquarters~ which will exceed anything of its kind south of Atlanta," Sarasota's Klan engaged the Morton Circus for a week's performance. Preceding the event were half-page ads announcing "KLAN CIRCUS with its Stupendous Aggregation of Celebrated Circus Arenic Stars." News stories kept readers informed of the circus' success: "KLAN CIRCUS IS HIT AGAIN WITH CAPACITY CROWD." Along with the "programs of select circus acts of highest class" were opportunities for local participation. The winner of the Miss Sarasota Popularity Contest was crowned on the center platform, followed the next evening by the marriage of a "very popular young couple ... under the dome of the big circus top."

The Klan's emergence paralleled the white establishment's harassment of blacks. Groups of black men were frequently arrested and then charged with idleness and vagrancy, gambling or liquor violations. Typical was a Sarasota Herald story headline: "Doing Nothing But It Costs. Sarasota Negroes Find They Are Not Lilies of the Field." The story recounted how 29 black men were rounded up in a pool room, charged with "idleness" and fined $25, plus costs. The arrests were undertaken because the sheriff had received numerous complaints that it was impossible to find labor. Employers complained that wages were so high that after a few days, most laborers quit and gambled their money away. Despite their reported high wages, the men in the pool room did not have enough money to pay their fines and ended up on road gangs, thereby conveniently easing the county's labor shortage. In another story, "Judge Hard on Negro Idlers," the paper reported that "every Negro seen loafing on the street was questioned." Another was titled, "Four Negro Vagrants Will Work for County 60 Days."

At its peak, the Klan had five million members, but by 1930 it had lost much of its power. Still, the vicissitudes of segregation and the concept of separate but equal facilities-- which, while always separate were never equal -- hung on.

Blacks were forced to the back of buses, drank from specially designated water fountains, were presented with restrooms labeled "Men," "Women" and "Black," and were prohibited from entering most restaurants, theaters or schools. When the new bus terminal was opened on Main Street and Orange Avenue in 1943, it was noted that it was "equipped with a lunch room for Negro patrons."

In the 1950s, battle was finally joined between Sarasota blacks and whites. The issue: the use of city and county beaches, which had always been closed to blacks.

The civil rights movement and Supreme Court decisions encouraged the blacks, but the county threatened to sell their beaches rather than integrate them, and the city gave police the authority to close all beaches to "prevent racial strife." A county commissioner was reported to have told a crowd of blacks, "When you can buy a beach for $40,000, let me know."

The county appointed a group of citizens to study the issue and devise a solution to "the Negro beach problem." (In 1955, two proposed sites for all-black beaches had been rejected: one north of City Island and the other north of Bird Key, with access by a county-run ferry.) Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime resident MacKinlay Kantor joined the fray by threatening to write an article for national publication entitled "Sarasota Cheats Its Black Children" if a beach were not found for them. The News editorialized, "The time for the county commission to act is now, while the NAACP is weak in Sarasota County." After all, it said, "a good summer tourist season is just around the corner; let's not spoil it."

Eventually, a pool was completed in the Newtown area and over time, beaches, schools and other aspects of life in Sarasota were integrated. The days when a black man was expected to move off the sidewalk when passing a white are long past. Still, many black Sarasotans still remember the times most white Sarasotans would prefer to forget, when racial hatred and unfairness divided our little town.
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Title Annotation:history of Sarasota
Author:Lahurd, Jeff
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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