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Newtown Alive Keeps African American History Preserved

African American woman and female Hispanic student pose for a photo.
Vickie Oldham, director of Newtown Alive, was interviewed by USF journalism student Kaylen Alvarez as part of the Telling Tampa Bay Stories series on Newtown. MARK SCHREINER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

Vickie Oldham has made it her personal mission to preserve the history of Newtown, where she's lived almost her entire life.

As part of our Telling Tampa Bay Stories series on one of the first African American communities in Sarasota, Oldham talked about how Newtown Alive, the community organization she’s the director of, chronicles the neighborhood’s stories.


Vickie Oldham:

We started working on phase one of the city of Sarasota project – now they called it the Newtown Conservation Historic District Project, but coming out of the marketing background, I thought, uh oh, no (laughs), that title is too boxy, it's too cumbersome, nobody's going to remember that.

And so we did some focus groups and Newtown Alive surfaced as a really catchy phrase for this project that we had begun.

Phase two of the city's project, they wanted us to create historic markers. We thought, you know what, it'd be nice to roll around on a trolley full of people and have somebody guiding the tour.

We have pioneers hopping on board to share personal stories about participating in the wade-in’s to integrate the beach.

This information is pretty heavy, so I decided to hire a singer – a freedom songs leader, he sings as we move from marker to marker. And so it really, really made a difference in our tours. They're lively, they're interactive. Yes, the information is heavy, but there's a lot of empowerment in these stories, and that's what I love about it.

There’s triumph in them, they survived in the face of so many odds, and that's a great story to tell.

These caravans are listed right up there with the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, Dr. Martin Luther King's historic home in Atlanta, and just some really heavy duty (laughs) civil rights sites, Newtown’s caravans are right there with them.

These stories have had a profound effect on my life personally, and that is such an understatement. They have changed my life for the good just to know that these pioneers pushed so hard. And so I am so, so appreciative, I think that is what keeps me moving to produce more products under the Newtown Alive banner, because I'm so proud and appreciative of what they've done.

And I believe that the stories can empower young people in this community to be more courageous, to be more confident, because they can see what these African American pioneers did for them. That's the message that sometime’s lost in documenting our history or not.

These stories really empower you and they make you know that you can do great things. That's why I'm on a mission to tell their stories in multiple formats, (laughs) traditional formats, non-traditional, digital, whatever way I can, I'd like to tell them.

I can see graphic novels made out of certain stories, I think that there's a feature film in some of these stories.

I think that the Sarasota community at large is coming to understand this powerful history, because prior to this Newtown Alive project, our history was in fragments, a sentence in a book, a photo with a cut line, but it had never been presented in a comprehensive kind of way.

You get a chance to see how powerful the residents were. But when it was in fragments, it just didn't look like a powerful community, it looked like a pretty passive community – not anymore.

Telling Tampa Bay Stories is an annual series WUSF has produced for the past four years that highlights different communities around the region people may not always hear about. We tell these stories with help from the people who call these places home. This year focuses on Newtown, one of the first African American communities in Sarasota.

The series is produced in partnership with University of South Florida journalism students. WUSF reporter Mark Schreiner and USF student Kaylen Alvarez produced this story. Conversations were recorded at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in Newtown.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.