by Scott Carroll, Projects Editor
Herald-Tribune Media Group
April 17, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of Newtown, an African-American community of about 2,000 homes in north Sarasota. Since it was among a dwindling number of such communities in Florida and one likely containing a rich history, we decided to write a series of stories in conjunction with the centennial. But when reporters Gabrielle Russon, Ian Cummings and Chris Anderson and editor Scott Carroll embarked on this project they quickly discovered that some fences would have to be mended in order to convince residents to share their stories.
Most residents and virtually all community leaders wanted no part of the newspaper and were not shy about expressing that sentiment. After all, the Herald-Tribune for decades had at best largely shown indifference to Newtown, and when we did cover events there it almost always had to do with a crime committed. The fact that for years the Herald-Tribune has not had a single African-American on its staff also did not go unnoticed in Newtown.
The building resentment of community leaders erupted in January 2013, when we mistakenly wrote a story saying an early-morning brawl in the community was tied to celebrations planned for Martin Luther King Jr. Day – long-planned events we had completely ignored. Those community leaders demanded and got a meeting with top editors, during which they vented.
As we embarked on our series we began by simply reaching out, and listening. Carroll, the project editor, met repeatedly with community leaders and asked how the Herald-Tribune could help spread the word about the centennial events being planned. Russon, Cummings and Anderson also met with community leaders as well as parents, teachers, students and others in order to unearth the stories that had been hidden by time and held close to the vest by prideful residents.
The result: the centennial marked not only the 100th anniversary of Newtown but also a turning point in how our community discussed race and how this newspaper covered it.
The Herald-Tribune ran a year-long series to give Newtown a voice, sharing the residents’ rich history, their successes and struggles. We called the series Newtown 100: A Legacy of Struggle and Triumph. More than a dozen of those stories were Sunday 1A centers.
One of the first stories we wrote dated back to the spring of 1969, when more than 2,300 black students in Newtown were pulled out of school to boycott the district’s decision to close a neighborhood school and bus the children across town to a white school. To keep students busy during the boycott parents and several high school students set up classrooms in local churches, creating so-called “Freedom Schools.” Other stories included the first local soldier killed in Vietnam, and recent efforts to get him a gravestone honoring his service; the struggle to integrate area beaches in the 1950s; and the life of former Newtown resident and Negro Baseball League hero Buck O’Neil, who continues to be an icon in Kansas City, where he spent much of his career.
The series also included a running schedule of events in conjunction with the centennial celebrations, live coverage of those events and guest columns from community leaders. Our online presentation offered yet more content, including an interactive timeline highlighting major events of the historic community over the decades, videos and photo galleries (newtown100.heraldtribune.com).
The response has been overwhelmingly favorable. Newtown Centennial organizers began handing out our stories at community events. The local school district has reached out to us to include the series in its high school curriculum. We are pursuing a partnership with a local nonprofit community foundation to produce an anthology of the series in the form of a book. Prompted by our series, a local filmmaker is making a documentary on Newtown – with the help of several area high school students – that will be shown at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival.
Just as importantly, we learned that the door is still open to us in Newtown, even though relations had been strained in the past and readers still have points of dissatisfaction with our coverage and our diversity in staffing. Residents there, including community leaders, are still talking to us and care deeply about our newspaper and what’s in it.
We also learned that history is complicated, even when the subject matter is a single neighborhood. Our Newtown 100 stories tended to emphasize the Triumph over the Struggle, which was probably appropriate for such a project. But we at times bumped up against less comfortable narratives and nagging questions that remain unanswered today. Future stories must grapple with those questions more directly. Our readers, who now include a growing number of Newtown residents, deserve no less.