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Sunday Favorites: Black Settlers Helped Establish Sarasota

The first black settler in Sarasota, Lewis Colson, came to the area as a surveyor's assistant, hired by the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company. He and his wife established a life there, and began what's considered the first black community.
It was 1884 and Sara Sota (present day Sarasota) was pristine and undeveloped. Older towns and villages had already been established along the Manatee River, but as settlers migrated into the area, larger conglomerates began eyeing big expanses of land in the southern parts of the county. (At the time, Sarasota was still a part of Manatee County).
After surveying the area, Colson drove a stake into the ground while his supervisor announced, "We will lay out the town of Sarasota from this point." Today that point is known as Five Points, according to an article entitled "Lewis Colsen" by historian Jeff Lehurd on the Newton 100 website.
Colson and his wife Irene stayed in Sarasota following the job. They purchased land in what is now considered the Newtown Area and Irene served as a midwife for early settlers. By 1886, several black families joined them, according to a historical marker "The First Black Community."
The Colsons donated land for the area's first black church, the Bethlehem Baptist Church, by selling the land to the board of trustees for one dollar, according to a Sarasota History Center article called "Black Settler Helped Sarasota Grow," by Lorrie Muldownhey.
The church was built in 1899 and located on the corner of present-day Seventh Street and Central Avenue. Colson became the first pastor, serving from its inception through 1915. The church, which was active until 1973, became the hub of the black community and attracted other businesses, according to Lahurd.
By the 1920s, a thriving black business district known as Overtown included a movie theater, several general stores, restaurants, lunch rooms, pressing clubs and more. Most of the structures were wood-framed, one-story buildings with a front porch. Residents in the district worked as fisherman, doctors, nurses, teachers, contractors, laborers, masons etc., all playing a vital role in the development of the city.
Lewis, who was born in 1844, died in 1922. The Colson Hotel and Colson Street were named in his honor. Lewis and Irene are the only black residents buried in Rosemary Cemetery.
Want to know more? You can learn about the historical district of Overtown by taking a self-guided tour of Newtown created by Newtown Alive, a non-profit committed to preserving the history of Sarasota's African-American neighborhood via mobile app. The app offers brief descriptions and oral memories of Overtown and Newtown area.


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