By Jiana Johnson '21
Out of several accomplishments of the Ringling College of Art and Design community during the Fall 2020 semester, one that significantly enriched our awareness of Sarasota’s history was the Newtown Alive art contest. Run through the College’s Collaboratory, which provides students with the chance to work on real-world projects with real-world clients to gain crucial work experience before graduation, this project’s goal was to celebrate Sarasota’s Black community through art that commemorates those who first integrated the Sarasota beaches. The mission for the Newtown Alive exhibition is to educate a wider audience by illuminating three important facets of Sarasota’s Black history: Beach integration; education; and civil rights. While the competition for the first installation focused on Sarasota’s beaches and concluded in fall 2020, all three exhibitions will be posted digitally and on view to the public in fall 2021.
With the help of Collaboratory instructor Rick Dakan and project coordinator Megan Greenberg, I was afforded the opportunity to work with Vicky Oldham, project consultant and community scholar, and other facilitators of Newtown Alive to pay homage to the pioneers of Black history in Sarasota. This experience helped me enter the realm of filmmaking, and showed me how to build a genuine connection with people I interview.
For decades, Sarasota has been a predominately white environment; for much of that time, it had strict laws regarding racial segregation. It was labeled a Sundown town – an all-white neighborhood or city known for practicing racial segregation through forms of discrimination, violence, and harassment towards non-whites in the area. Even though Sarasota established its popularity in the ’40s for having beautiful beaches, Black people would not be granted the luxury to enjoy them without facing oppression for years to come.
When the Black community was able to obtain money from officials to build a beach of their own in 1955, they faced backlash from white community members who didn’t want them to build on any of the proposed locations, including the north end of Siesta Key and an area on Longboat Key.
On Monday afternoon, October 3, 1955, Newtown residents caravanned to Lido Beach to hold a wade-in, swimming and walking the shores in protest. This public demonstration was a clear message to Sarasota officials that the voices of the Black community were going to be heard, despite the harassment they had long endured.
These wade-ins would continue for another ten years before change was seen. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted that the protests would stop, and, even then, no one knows exactly when the beaches were fully integrated. Though this moment in history was a huge turning point in equality for generations to come, few people today recognize it as such.
Having grown up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I am no stranger to feeling out of place in public spaces. With this in mind, I created a video portrait showcasing the gaze of two Black women. They stare directly into the camera for long periods of time to give the viewer an uncomfortable sense of always being watched. My experience as a Black woman in America is not too far from that. Taking a moment out of what I feel every day and turning it into a video meant to play on a loop is in itself protest art.
The narrator in the video is Odessa Butler, who was only a teenager when she attended the wade-ins with her mother. Being able to talk to someone who experienced Sarasota’s ever-changing environment resonated with me, and that conversation is something that I will carry with me throughout my life.
This history needs to be told, and I am honored to be among the selected few whose art will act as a love letter to the Black community here in Sarasota, and beyond.
Learn more about Newtown Alive at www.newtownalive.org.
1st Place Winner Illustration by Briana Uchendu ’21
2nd Place Winner Video entitled Liberty by Jiana Johnson ’21
3rd Place Winner Illustration by Kitt Thomas ’21