Trayvon Martin case reveals undercurrent of racial tension, distrust in Sanford

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Old Sanford eats at the Colonial Room. The menu hasn't changed in 30 years and, despite new owners, is unlikely to change much in the future. Old Sanford likes predictability, familiarity, tradition and meatloaf on Mondays, fried chicken on Thursdays. Old Sanford remembers when the high-school class ring had celery stalks on the sides and Pete Knowles was city manager for 32 years.

Hollerbach's Willow Tree Café is New Sanford. The German-themed restaurant relies more on out-of-towners than locals for its business. New Sanford moved in from somewhere else, drawn to the preserved downtown, the historic district of old homes, the renovated riverfront, the strong sense of place and community.

The two restaurants are a block apart, each catering to a different — yet sometimes overlapping — clientele that represents a city in transition. In the middle of this transformation, while factions competed for control, the world set siege to the city of Sanford.

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman brought national and international attention to the oldest city in Central Florida, along with busloads of protesters, high-profile civil-rights activists, cable-television satellite trucks and newspaper reporters from across the country. The city — which has worked hard to overcome its reputation as a poor, rural town — was now being compared to Birmingham and Selma. A bad image was being replaced by something worse.

Old and New Sanford, black and white, newcomers and old-timers, agree that the labels slapped upon Sanford by "outsiders" are untrue and inaccurate. Sanford is a friendly, close-knit, hospitable city of 54,000 people who get along reasonably well, they say.

Where they are as different as the Willow Tree's Wiener schnitzel and the Colonial Room's country-fried steak is on whether Sanford has a racial problem.

Old Sanford says no, that individuals may have experienced prejudice or racism, but the city as a whole has never been racist.

"Sanford has never, and still to my knowledge, does not experience racial prejudice as a community. Sanford never has had racial problems," said Sara Jacobson, 74, a third-generation Sanford resident and downtown-business owner.

New Sanford says the racial tensions unleashed by Trayvon's shooting death are real and deep-seated. They need to be acknowledged and addressed.

"Yes, we had a problem with how black people were treated and how things haven't been equal. I'm not going to say it's a good thing Trayvon Martin died, but it's a good thing it's out there and we can make it better," said Theo Hollerbach, 54, an Orlando native who opened his Sanford restaurant in 2001.

The black community's grievances include a long distrust of the Sanford Police Department. Black residents complain they are viewed as suspicious by police for doing things that whites take for granted: driving a new car, sitting on bus benches after dark, talking together inside a parked car.

Cindy Philemon said she and a friend were questioned by a police officer while sitting on a bus bench at night, talking.

"He said, 'Get up from here. The bus isn't running at these hours.' So we got up, but we felt defeated. It was like the days way old," said Philemon, 48, who was born in Sanford. "They can do you wrong, but you can't speak out. They can hit you, and you can't fight back because they will take you to jail."

Old Sanford, in words that echo from the civil-rights era of the 1960s, blames outside agitators for making race an issue in Sanford. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are accused of provoking a national outrage directed at Sanford for personal aggrandizement and profit. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown is a troublemaker. Those who marched down Park Avenue from Centennial Park to the Civic Center were outsiders bused into Sanford, not local black residents.

"We wouldn't have had this reaction without Corrine Brown calling in Jesse and Sharpton," said Barbara Chapman, 82. "I don't think they [Sanford blacks] were involved in it."

Sanford's black residents dispute that version. Members of the Seminole County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and local black activists say they raised concerns about Trayvon's death and the decision not to arrest Zimmerman soon after the Feb. 26 shooting. They say the city was unresponsive.

"Before Jesse Jackson, before Al Sharpton, before any of them came in here, we tried to talk to chief of police [Bill] Lee, we tried to talk to [City Manager Norton] Bonaparte, we tried to talk to [Mayor] Jeff Triplett, we tried to talk to the commissioners," said Francis Oliver, 68, founder of the Goldsboro Westside Historical Museum.

"When you can't talk to your city leaders," Oliver said, "you have to do what you have to do."

'Don't change anything'

In its attitudes toward outsiders, Old Sanford retains the heritage of small Southern towns where guests, visitors and newcomers are extended gracious Southern hospitality but are never accepted as insiders. Unless you were born here, you can live in Sanford all your life and still be an outsider.

Bill Painter, who bought the Colonial Room in 1977, said he enjoyed the camaraderie with charter members of Old Sanford while he owned the restaurant. He tailored his menu to their tastes, opened the back room of his restaurant for their Rotary, Kiwanis and Optimists meetings. He played golf and went to Florida Gators football games with them.

"I was never one of them. They were great to me, but you could tell the ones who were born and raised here and went to school together," said Painter, 71. "It was just a different relationship."

When he sold the restaurant a year ago to a Venezuelan family, the new owners were given a friendly piece of advice from their Old Sanford customers: Don't change anything.

"The first week, one of the customers told me, 'Did you know when you bought this restaurant, this isn't your restaurant? It's our restaurant,' " said Maria Lengua, 37, daughter-in-law of the owners. "He wanted me to be aware of what Sanford was — the heritage, the roots, the history."

Old Sanford points out that Trayvon Martin was an outsider from Miami and George Zimmerman was from Virginia. The shooting took place in one of the newer, outlying gated subdivisions that, although technically inside the city limits, aren't really Sanford.

The attitude toward outsiders exists within the black community as well. There are families that go back generations. There are Old Sanford black leaders as entrenched as their white counterparts. Clayton Turner Jr., a Sanford native, has been president of the Seminole Branch of the NAACP for 24 years. In that same time period, the NAACP's Orange Branch has had eight presidents.

Paul Benjamin, who moved to Sanford in 1994 and founded the Central Florida Dream Center in Goldsboro, said the Old Sanford in the black community is still tied to past injustices.

"The newer generation wants to move forward, but they are held captive in the bubble of the old stories of the old," said Benjamin, 47.

Sanford's instinct to blame the outside world is ingrained in how the city perceives itself and how it is viewed by others.

A different image

Jason and Kimmy Skipper moved into their 1925 home on a shady street in an older Sanford neighborhood in 2002. They ride bikes to the farmers market on Saturday to buy jars of honey, handmade soap and fresh cucumbers. They've found a place outside of town that still sells vegetables on the honor system. They attend the Alive After 5street festival in downtown Sanford that once a month draws thousands of people to sample food vendors, listen to live music and purchase art.

The neighbors on their street hold Halloween and Christmas parties, school's-out gatherings and Fourth of July block parties.

"The neighborhood is quiet, peaceful," said Kimmy Skipper, 36, who grew up in Orlando. "We knew this is where we were meant to be."

This wasn't the Sanford the Skippers expected when they were house-hunting. Both grew up with a different image of Sanford in their minds.

"I just thought it was low-income, a dangerous place to be," said Jason Skipper, 36, who grew up in Fern Park.

That was the image many people had of Sanford — poor, black, dangerous — when Sara Jacobson spearheaded a public-image-renovation campaign for the city in the late 1990s.

"We gave a different slant. We gave the wonderful waterfront. We gave the old historic homes. We gave the wonderful downtown with the mix of antiques and heritage," Jacobson said. "We also promoted the solidarity of the community."

Seminole's stepchild

Founded in 1877, Sanford is the oldest, poorest, blackest community in the most suburban and wealthiest county in Central Florida. It has the highest percentage of black residents of any Seminole city, comprising 29 percent of the city's population. It has the lowest median-household income and the highest poverty rate of any city in Seminole County. It has the highest overall crime rate in Seminole County but has seen that change in recent years. Robbery, assault, theft and arson have all declined in the past decade.

Sanford has none of the million-dollar residential subdivisions, corporate offices and business complexes of other Seminole County cities. Sanford's most valuable real estate — the waterfront — is lined with tax-exempt property including Sanford City Hall, Sanford Civic Center, the old Seminole County Courthouse, Fort Mellon Park, a municipal parking lot, the old post office and the nonprofit New Tribes Mission headquarters.

"It could have been better planned so there would be a real tax base for that property," said former Mayor Linda Kuhn.

Residents complain that Sanford is the county seat of Seminole that gets dumped on by the county. Sanford had the only public-housing project in Seminole before it was condemned as uninhabitable. It's the only city in Seminole with a homeless shelter.

"We're treated like the redheaded child of Seminole County," Kuhn said.

When school desegregation came in the 1970s, Sanford bore the brunt with the court-ordered integration of Seminole High School, said Bill Kirchhoff, 72, a second-generation Sanford resident and local historian.

"What they did in Seminole County is, in effect, they had two districts: one for the southern end of the county and one for Sanford," Kirchhoff said.

At Seminole High, the integrated school elected two homecoming queens — one white, one black — until the students themselves abolished the tradition in 1982.

'Bipolar community'

Proud of its isolation and independence, Sanford bristles at the idea of being considered a suburb of Orlando, a place that was once smaller than Sanford.

"Sanford was the gate city to the interior of the state," Kirchhoff said. "Orlando was a little dot down there."

Sanford, in many ways, views itself as superior to Orlando. Sanford has a waterfront; Orlando doesn't. Sanford has a historic downtown; Orlando doesn't. Sanford has a sense of place; Orlando doesn't. Sanford has a zoo; Orlando doesn't. Orlando has an airport. Sanford does also, which it grudgingly agreed to name Orlando-Sanford International Airport, instead of the other way around.

Similarly, Sanford once looked down its nose at Lake Mary, its next-door neighbor that experienced a growth spurt in the late 1980s, outpacing Sanford in affluence and prestige. Along the road that separates Lake Mary from Sanford, the subdivisions on the Lake Mary side call themselves the Hills of Lake Mary, Tuscany at Lake Mary, the Villas of Lake Mary. On the other side, no subdivision boasts of being the lakes, hills or villas of Sanford.

"I'm a Sanford resident. I pay Sanford taxes, but to be truthful if I was selling something on Craigslist, I'd say Lake Mary," said Greg Partridge, 40, who lives in a subdivision near the town houses where Trayvon Martin was killed. "There's less of a stigma attached to Lake Mary."

While other Seminole County communities have prospered, Old Sanford often gets the blame for turning its back on opportunities for growth and change.

"There isn't any old guard stopping anything," Kirchhoff said. "The guard left the gatehouse a long time ago."

What is left are factions of competing interests — what Jacobson describes as Sanford's "bipolar" personality. This is a city where the Greater Sanford Regional Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Historic Sanford Welcome Center exist almost side by side but operate independently of each other.

"A bipolar community — that's always been Sanford's story," Jacobson said. "It's this bipolar split of egos fighting against leadership to try and gain a stance or position."

Part of history

Old Sanford argues that what happened to Trayvon Martin could have happened anywhere. Sanford is the stand-in for all of America, and in that way serves as a lens for introspection on the issues of race, profiling, selective law enforcement, crime and self-defense, independent of where the killing took place.

New Sanford agrees: Sanford is Anywhere, U.S.A. But New Sanford also argues that there is something unique to the city that set the world on fire. At the core is the issue of race.

"Sanford never moved out of the '70s," Francis Oliver said. "There is still an invisible line between the blacks and the whites. That's what happened with Trayvon Martin. People started crossing the line."

In a place that stamps its history on the sides of buildings with shiny brass plaques and on street corners with the raised lettering of historical markers, the black community remembers its history as well.

It remembers that the city of Sanford dissolved Goldsboro, the second-oldest black community in Florida in 1910, and made it part of Sanford. It remembers other times, before Trayvon Martin, when blacks in Sanford marched in protest over the plans to close the black high school; the banning of blacks from setting foot inside the new civic center; and the new municipal swimming pool that was off-limits to black residents.

The response from the white community, old-timers and newcomers, is often that it's too late to change the past.

"I'm not negating how the black community feels, but we can't change history," Kuhn said. "Let's all of us move forward, but the African-American community has to also."

The denial of the past, in a city that reveres its history, leads to myths of racial harmony that persist into the present.

Pat Smith said that, when she moved to Sanford from Alabama in 1960 at age 11, she asked her grandmother why the city wasn't experiencing any racial problems as other Southern cities were.

"She told me when the NAACP tried to come in to Sanford, the black people said, 'We don't have a problem. We don't need you,' " said Smith, 63, who now lives in Casselberry.

Blacks tell a different version. The NAACP has been active in Sanford since the 1940s, when it organized Goldsboro residents to face down the Ku Klux Klan, Oliver said.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, Sanford's black community already was frustrated with the lack of arrests in the deaths of seven other black men. Martin's death made one too many. His face joined the others in a flier distributed by community activists who created a Facebook page called Justice for Our Community.

"Other kids got shot, and nothing happened," said Roosevelt Cummings, 68, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Sanford, which picketed for the arrest of George Zimmerman and the firing of police Chief Bill Lee. "Blacks just said, 'Enough is enough. It's time.' "

Trayvon Martin's death could have happened anywhere. But it happened in Sanford, a city in transition, divided against itself. Whatever the outcome, like it or not, Trayvon Martin is now part of Sanford's history.

Inside one of the glass display cases of Goldsboro's black-history museum is a bright-yellow pass to the March 26 City Commission meeting on the Trayvon Martin shooting. It was the day the world came to town, uninvited, and set siege to Sanford.

jkunerth@tribune.com or 407-420-5392

About the series

In the Trayvon Martin case, the shadow of race has stretched from a rainy night in late February to the national uproar that followed the death of the unarmed teenager to continuing revelations about shooter George Zimmerman. It has sparked demonstrations and renewed criticism of a dual standard of justice in the United States. During the next several months, the exclusive Orlando Sentinel series "In the Shadow of Race" will explore the racial backdrop of the Trayvon tragedy, looking at how race has shaped the history of Sanford and how it shapes our attitudes today.

Nearly a dozen Orlando Sentinel staff members are contributing to the exclusive series "In the Shadow of Race." Today's kick-off installment was written by veteran reporter Jeff Kunerth, who covers race, religion and demographics for the Sentinel. Photographs and video were shot by Gary Green. The series is edited by Kim Marcum and Sal Recchi with photography editor Cassie Armstrong.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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