New mural in Rosemary District celebrates local Black history icons
Visitors gazed with admiration at a mural featuring Lewis and Irene Colson, two of Sarasota’s first Black residents, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony that celebrated the new artwork on July 20.
The mural, now elevated above Central Avenue on the side of the Planned Parenthood health center, is a sight familiar to those well versed in the area’s history.
It depicts Rev. Lewis Colson and Irene Colson, two highly influential founding members of Sarasota’s original Black community, Overtown, which was developed into the Rosemary District where the mural is located.
“It was by no mistake that we chose this building to put these people on – by no mistake,” said Walter Gilbert, mural organizer for the Gilbert Mural Initiative.
The location was a perfect fit, he said.
At the time Lewis Colson founded Bethlehem Bible Church, Sarasota’s first Black church, it was located next door to where the health center now is. The health services offered at the center mirror those offered by his wife Irene Colson, a midwife for the Black community. Finally, the Colsons are buried in the Rosemary Cemetery across the street.
Sarasota Mayor Kyle Battie attended the event along with Commissioner Debbie Trice, school board member Tom Edwards, and Jon Thaxton of Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which funded the mural.
“This mural matters more now than ever, and I’d like to challenge all of us. It’s time for us to be more bold, more disruptive, and create more Black history products,” said Vickie Oldham, president and CEO of the African-American Cultural Coalition.
A history to celebrate
As a fourth-generation resident of Sarasota, Gilbert grew up hearing stories about Overtown after he would beg his grandmother, Essie Baron, to recount them.
The area was a “thriving Black community” at the time Sarasota was being developed said Planned Parenthood former board chair Mary Braxton Joseph.
“We are proud to serve all our communities. But we are especially proud to be headquartered in this community because of the history of the area,” she said.
Colson, a former slave, came from a small town just southeast of Tallahassee in 1884, becoming the area’s first documented Black settler.
His wife, Irene, also was highly regarded in the community. She served as a midwife to Black residents, who were denied access to mainstream health care.
The contributions of the Colsons were multifaceted. Lewis Colson became the first Black person to register to vote in Manatee County. He is largely remembered for leading the group that founded Bethlehem Bible Church in Sarasota in 1896.
“Back in those days there was no place for people of color to meet that was bigger than a house, and most of those people were laborers and their houses weren’t that large,” said Henry Richardson of Bethlehem Bible Church. “But when they built this church next door, it became the center of black life in this area.”
Colson served the community as a minister for 16 to 18 years. Originally located at Seventh Street and Central Avenue near the mural, the church relocated to 1680 18th Street after the original location, which opened in 1897, closed in 1973.
After Lewis Colson’s death in 1922, the Colsons became the only Black residents to be buried at the Rosemary Cemetery. The cemetery, which was reserved for whites only, was owned by Lewis Colson’s former employer, Florida Mortgage and Investment Co. Allegedly, the Colsons were buried at night to avoid the discontent of other residents in the area.
In 1926, E.O. Burns opened the first hotel in Sarasota for Black residents and tourists, the Colson Hotel.
As Sarasota grew, Overtown developed into the Rosemary District, and many residents had to relocate to the north to Newtown.
No simple task
Sonja McCoy Harvey, a great-grandchild of Irene and Lewis Colson, thanked Planned Parenthood, Walter Gilbert, and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation for their efforts.
“I think the Colsons demonstrated the greatest thing about America,” she said. “You don’t have to have much. You can start with little and you can go, and go, and go and grow and affect others,” she said.
She said the Colsons had enough money left over to help her go to Hampton University and for her brother to become a veterinarian, asking attendees to think about the knowledge of history they can pass on.
“We’re incredibly honored to have this mural on our building,” said Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida Pesident and CEO Stephanie Fraim.
“It’s because of initiatives like this that children can come to this area and see the legacy that they themselves are a part of, and it’s important that they see the legacy that they are part of,” said Battie.
Bringing the mural to the building was no simple task, said Gilbert, as many residents were initially not aware of the image’s significance.
“It’s been a labor of love with a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears, so I’m very happy every time we get one up,” said Gilbert. He began working on the mural, one of four in the area, in 2020.
“They know this area as the Rosemary District, so I have to go in, share all the history, and let them know how important it is to have something like this where they now live and understand it only enhances the area, not hurts it,” he said.
The other challenging part was obtaining funds, he said. Fortunately, organizations such as Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Sarasota Community Foundation, and private donors have assisted the initiative.
“He did a fantastic job,” said Pamela Jones, a cousin of Harvey and member of the Colson family. “I’m really impressed. I learned a lot today.”