Art and Racial Segregation on the Florida Coast
Discovering Public Remembrances of What We Must Not Forget
This past weekend, my partner, two friends, and I flew down to Sarasota—a picturesque city that sits along Florida’s Gulf Coast—to visit my Mother-in-Law and have a bit of fun and relaxation. Amid the sorbets, gelatos, glasses of Chardonnay, and sushi pizzas that magically appeared in our hands, my partner and I slowed down occasionally and took the time to look a little closer at everything that was in full display.
We were pleased to come across local historical markers documenting the legacy of racial segregation in the area. At a time when schools across the country are grappling with banning books and innocent Black bodies are being murdered by police, it is imperative that we create spaces to remember and learn from the injustices of the past.
Long before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education essentially deemed that all public facilities become integrated, the beaches in the greater Sarasota area were designated as “whites only.” Requests from Black leaders and activists to have just one beach for local African Americans to enjoy were answered with the offer from local government to build a swimming pool instead. Clearly, one swimming pool could not fairly accommodate an entire community of people across a county area. This was one thread woven across a tapestry of injustices during the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Pictured above is a mural at Lido Key in Sarasota memorializing the Black activists who protested against racial segregation in Florida’s beaches. In the fall of 1955, they rode in caravans of cars, swam, walked along the shores, and stood in solidarity for their rights as part of a “wade-in” protest in response to the blatant discrimination they were facing.
A historical marker detailing the racial segregation in the area also sits at a central location at Lido Key where people congregate for food and music:
On a sidewalk in downtown Sarasota, there is a painting of two black men at Casperson Beach in Venice when it was opened up for the black community in 1956, even though that beach was located a full 40 miles from the Newtown and Overtown neighborhoods where the Black communities in Sarasota lived.
During my Sarasota trip, I got to dig my feet into the warm gulf waters and sit on the sand while I soaked in the sun. It was not lost on me that, not too long ago, there were people who were denied these simple pleasures because of their physical differences and otherness.
Even though I am not Black and did not grow up facing racial discrimination in America, I have fought my own battles as someone who is an Asian immigrant, queer, and a person of color. I like to think that the courage and voices of people like Mary Emma Jones, Neil Humphrey, Maxine Brooks Mays, John Henry Rivers, and many others inevitably made these beaches accessible to all people, of all colors and differences.
Of course, racism—systemic and otherwise—still exists in the area in the form of rampant gentrification. The historically Black Overtown neighborhood’s close proximity to downtown make it ideal for new development by wealthy, white, and foreign buyers. It is currently being rebranded as the “Rosemary District” while the landmarks and the Black heritage of this area disappear over time.
I have made it no secret that I believe in Black Lives Matter, and I also believe that the true character of any society is expressed by the treatment and care of its most vulnerable members. I want to live in a society in which Black people feel safe, loved, cherished, and celebrated for the richness and uniqueness that they give.
They deserve it.
Art can be a vessel through which we can remember the harsh and brutal realities of the past. Even amid the bright, sandy beaches of a paradise like Sarasota, racism flourished out in the open. Now, when everyone is allowed to frolic on that same sand, we must exercise our right to honor the protests of the past and make sure that we never forget them.
I am so glad that we slowed down enough during this trip to learn more about Sarasota’s history. The intricate and deeper view that we got to see was far more beautiful in its complexity and richness.
All Photos by Roqué Marcelo.
Please feel free to share this post with anyone who might find it useful.
Where Pianos Roam is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.