In Sanford, Fla., historic wrongs against the local black community goes back a long way. The memory of those events is still fresh, and they are getting another airing in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, which protesters have called racially motivated.
Modern Sanford is built on the shoulders of several historically black communities. Goldsborough, incorporated in 1891, was one of the earliest black towns in Florida.
“[It had] its own post office, its own jail, its own city council, its own everything,” says Francis Oliver, who curates the Goldsborough Westside Historical Museum. Her daughter is an attorney for Martin’s family.
Oliver says Goldsborough was absorbed by Sanford in 1911, a move that left bad feelings over how the town was treated.
“[They] never paid restitution to the people who lost their jobs and asked for money because they … no longer [had] jobs,” she says. “The mayor didn’t have a job, City Council people didn’t have a job, the post mistress didn’t have a job, the jailers didn’t have a job, the marshal didn’t have a job.”
Willie Saunders grew up in the area in the 1940s and ’50s. Saunders had a paper route back then and still remembers his boss at the Sanford Herald. The older white man refused to touch him.
“You know, I didn’t think about it then. I was a kid,” he says. “Every time I would come to give him the monies for the route, he would say, ‘Put it on the counter, put it on the table.’ And … when he gave me my money, he put on the table.”
Author Valada Parker Flewellyn collected stories for the book, Images of America: African Americans of Sanford. She says in 1946 baseball legend Jackie Robinson was run out of town during spring training. Local authorities did not want to see blacks and whites playing together.
“When Jackie Robinson came out onto the field, the sheriff’s department came and protested that the game would not start,” Flewellyn says. “So he had to be escorted away from Sanford, and they took him to Daytona.”
From the late 19th century until around World War II, Sanford was a major agricultural center in Florida. It was known as the “Celery Capital of the World.” Its location on the St. Johns River made Sanford a major port and a bigger city than nearby Orlando for much of the 20th century.
Today, one of Sanford’s favorite hangouts is the Riverwalk. On warm, sunny evenings, it is the norm to see black, white and Hispanic residents fishing or out for a stroll. An ice cream truck nearby makes it feel like summer.
Hattie Ensley grew up in Sanford and enjoys a moment of calm with her fiancee by the river. She reflects on the situation that’s gripped the city for weeks.
“I went to the town hall meeting at Allen Chapel, and I think everything was handled pretty peacefully, and I think this is what we want,” she says. “We want to be peaceful and no violence.”
Ensley insists all she wants in this case is justice.