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Florida city of Sanford's image takes a blow in Trayvon Martin shooting

SANFORD — Cindy Philemon has fond memories of growing up in this town.

Kids bathed in tin tubs. Families bought food from Charlie at the old Tip-Top grocery store. People flocked from all over town to buy blocks of ice at the nearby ice house.

In this neighborhood of Goldsboro, once a large incorporated all-black city before it was taken over by Sanford in 1911, rarely did Philemon cross over Lake Avenue to go into the white part of town.

That's how it was. Each side kept to itself.

But in the wake of the racially charged Trayvon Martin shooting, many black leaders here say they are conflicted because despite that segregated past, the town had made great strides in recent years in erasing the image of Sanford as a racist Southern town.

In the past few years, the town has sought to rebrand itself as an artsy lakeside community attracting the young and hip to downtown restaurants and galleries, and hosting monthly downtown block parties. Residents of all colors fear that the shooting, emotional rallies and hordes of reporters from around the globe will stain the legacy of a town with a rich history, black and white.

Just two falls ago, Philemon joined an mixed-race cast in Touch n Go, a community play that chronicled the historical lives of Sanford residents.

"It was the first time something like that happened," said Philemon, 48, who has been active in rallies supporting justice for Trayvon. "It really brought us all together."

Dr. Stephen Kendall Wright, a retired Seminole College professor of English and African American studies, said he fears "this one event could wipe out our entire history."

"I thought we were becoming less known as a hick town, outgrowing that old image," said Wright, a writer who founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Association, dedicated to the African-American Pulitzer-prize winning poet who frequented Sanford. "When people talk about Sanford, I always thought it was rather sophisticated little town in many ways when it comes to race."

The recent turmoil began when neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon during a confrontation on Feb. 26.

Zimmerman, 28, has claimed that he acted in self-defense, saying Trayvon struck first, smashing his head into the concrete on a pathway in between townhomes. Trayvon's supporters argue that Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon, who was unarmed and had walked to a convenience store to buy candy.

Trayvon, of Miami Gardens, was visiting his father's girlfriend, who lives in the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community, a newer, multi-ethnic development about five miles away from the old historic part of town.

The gated community, dotted with foreclosures and unfinished homes, had been plagued by burglaries and thefts in recent months. Zimmerman, who is half-white, half-Hispanic, frequently called police to report everything from loitering young men to stray dogs.

City leaders are split on the legacy the Trayvon shooting will have on Sanford.

In an interview last week, the city's only black commissioner, Velma Williams, said this shooting has "caused us to retrogress 20 or 30 years" in race relations.

Commissioner Randy Jones said he believes the town's image will only take a brief beating. He scoffs when Sanford is compared to the towns that dominated the storylines of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

"People like (Rev. Jesse) Jackson are throwing around Selma and Birmingham — and that's just not the case," Jones said.

Twenty miles north of Orlando, Sanford is a town of more than 50,000, about 30 percent black, according to census figures. Casual visitors know the town for the Sanford International Airport, the Seminole Town Center mall and nearby auto dealerships.

But over the past decade, city officials have poured more than $20 million into redeveloping the once-dilapidated downtown, the River Walk zone next to Lake Monroe and Fort Mellon Park — where many of the Trayvon rallies have been held.

Florida pioneer Henry Sanford established the town on the south bank of Lake Monroe in 1877. Swedish settlers were among the first to populate the town and for most of its early existence, agriculture — it earned the name "Celery City" — dominated local business.

Tensions between whites and blacks existed even then.

Just west of downtown, railroad and dock workers established Goldsboro, the second town incorporated by blacks in Florida. For one decade, the town flourished, with its own post office, red-bricked school and water wells.

But in 1911, Sanford took over the town, changing the street names and stiffing black leaders of more than $10,000 in fees associated with the annexation, something that still irks old-timers at the Goldsboro Museum.

Last week, as thousands of rally goers flocked to Sanford, museum director Francis Oliver, 68, and supporters busily prepared handwritten "Justice for Trayvon" signs inside the building, a double-wide trailer that once served as a police substation.

Oliver, on the phone, implored a supporter to obtain recall papers for two city commissioners who declined to issue a vote of no confidence to Police Chief Bill Lee, who had been on the job for about 10 months.

The museum, a few blocks away from the Sanford police station, opened last fall spurred on by Commissioner Williams. The museum features everything from photos of early Goldsboro pioneers and Sanford natives such as Ray Charles and Broadway performer Alton Lathrop, to original documents of the town itself to a barbershop chair used for over seven decades in the neighborhood.

But even Oliver admits that although racial tensions existed decades ago, much of that has ebbed in recent years. The city helped tremendously in creating the museum and in January, the city agreed to restore the neighborhood's main strip, 13th Street, to a moniker closer to its original name, Historic Goldsboro Boulevard.

Issues with police, however, have not subsided, Oliver said.

In 2010, police waited seven weeks to arrest a white lieutenant's son who was caught on video sucker-punching a homeless black man. In 2005, two white security guards — one the son of a longtime Sanford police officer and the other a department volunteer — killed a black man they said was trying to run them over. Black leaders complained of a lackluster investigation. The guards ultimately were acquitted.

But Oliver pointed out, even a black officer was arrested last November for allegedly stealing money from undocumented Hispanic men.

"We don't have a racial problem in this city," Oliver said. "We have a problem with police."

The tension with police is compounded by a relatively high crime rate. Sanford police said it notched 945 burglaries in 2011, up from 871 in 2010.

Many black residents, to reporters and at city hall meetings, here have been forceful in their depiction of police racial profiling and misconduct, something Lee acknowledged in an interview two weeks ago, before he stepped down as police chief.

"This is very unsettling. The police department is definitely not going to be able to resolve the emotional conflict or racial tension in the community," said Lee, who is white and whose father ran a convenience store in Goldsboro. "That was my goal when I came here. There was turmoil in the department, and we were coming in with a fresh start."

Sanford

Population: 53,570

White: 57.3%

Black: 30.5%

Of Hispanic or Latino origin: 20.2%

Median household income: $43,470

People below poverty level: 18.5%

Median home value: $165,400

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Florida city of Sanford's image takes a blow in Trayvon Martin shooting 04/03/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 3:17pm]

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