The Leonard Reid House in Newtown has a rich history.
The historic home formerly belonged to Leonard Reid, a Black pioneer in Sarasota, and was situated in Sarasota’s Rosemary District before its relocation to Newtown in 2022.
During a celebration this month, the house will be decked with holiday trimmings in anticipation of things to come, said Vickie Oldham, president of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition.
“That corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Orange Avenue is about to be lit,” said Oldham. “It’s going to be lit with music, with colorful lights and with high spirits.”
Oldham said the event is intended as a preview of what the public can expect in February 2024 when the house opens as the Sarasota African American cultural center.
The event, titled A Newtown Christmas and set for Dec. 15-16, is not the only way the coalition is intertwining the celebration of its history with the holiday season.
Another notable way the organization is celebrating is by presenting a Christmas tree in the Festival of Trees at Mall at University Town Center, sharing the stories of Newtown beyond the city limits.
A Newtown Christmas
The idea of transforming the Leonard Reid House into a cultural center came about with the home’s relocation by the city of Sarasota in 2020, at a time when the SAACC was searching for a site to host a center.
It was the home's historic significance that made it a fitting choice.
It was built in 1926 for Reid, who was considered the “right-hand man” to Sarasota’s first mayor, J. Hamilton Gillespie, who served from 1902 to 1907.
Reid lived much of his life in the house with his wife, Eddye Coleman, and their two daughters, Ethel Reid Hayes and Viola Reid. Reid and Coleman played a significant role in establishing Payne Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, while their daughters were prominent educators who taught Oldham as a child.
The relocation of the home from 1435 Seventh St. in the Rosemary District, to the current 2529 North Orange Ave., came about in 2020 when its then owner, Vinland Holdings Inc. of Cocoa Beach, agreed to donate the structure to the city of Sarasota.
With the house installed at its new home, work on repairs commenced in the summer 2023.
Oldham said she is excited to have renovations being carried out by a Tampa Bay-based, African American-owned general contractor, Envision – Commercial Construction Services.
“I must tell you that we are thrilled about that, how exciting it is to have an African American general contractor working on this house that was built in 1926 and owned by an African American family,” Oldham said.
The numerous repairs included replacement of wood and flooring, repairs to windows and water damage under the tin roof, interior and exterior painting, installation of light fixtures, the addition of further restrooms and the removal of a tattered and damaged awning.
Although the work on the home is not yet complete, Oldham is still excited for the grounds to be hosting A Newtown Christmas.
The festive experience will include Truality, a popular gospel group; vocalist Brenda Watty; the Sarasota Military Academy’s Soaring Singers; and Booker High School's Vocal Vortex.
The event will also feature spoken word artist Melanie Lavender, poetry by young Booker Middle School writers and attendance by two pastors who blessed the property before the house was moved there, the Rev. Wesley Tunstall and the Rev. John Wesley Walker.
Guests will also be able to enjoy games, caroling and food that includes barbecue, baked beans and mac and cheese, along with food trucks G’s Southern Kitchen and Wendy’s Yummy Kitchen.
Tours of the grounds will be offered, in order to highlight the landscaping.
“It wasn't that the plants that you see were placed in the ground haphazardly,” she said of the selection of African and Florida native plants, some of which have medicinal purposes.
Once the home is opened in February, Oldham hopes it will fill a need in the area for a wide range of activities that include everything from leaning about the local African American community's past, to growing future leaders.
Activities are planned to include history classes, demonstrations, book signings and more. Programs will involve education on history, writing and performing spoken word poetry and leadership.
Work on the grounds also remains to be completed; in January, construction will begin on a butterfly garden by the Sarasota County Butterfly Club with an estimated cost of $4,500, funded through grants as well as by the club's members.
The club's president, Susan Morris-Huse, said this project is unusual; as a nonprofit, the club is not often able to donate to other organizations. However, she believes the educational focus of the center will offer an ideal opportunity to teach children about the importance of butterflies.
She also said she was eager to work with Oldham.
"She basically asks, and you have to say yes," she said.
Festival of Trees
The SAACC's tree at the Mall at University Town Center, designed by Tonya Jones of LACE LLC, honors some of the major figures in Newtown’s history through the images featured on its ornaments, part of the Festival of Trees display of about 40 trees on the mall's second floor.
The silent auction, which ends Dec. 17, will benefit participating organizations.
“It seemed like such a no-brainer to do that, and I know when I can feel that excitement bubbling up in my heart: that’s a good idea. So, we moved with it,” Oldham said. "Every way that we can honor them and celebrate them, we do.”
Spencer Bryant is among those who felt impacted by the display.
His sister, Dorothye Smith, who is honored on the tree, was the first African American principal hired within the integrated school system in Sarasota County. It was a tumultuous time, he recalls, which saw her receiving death threats, with parents picketing in front of the school.
“She never showed any dislike for anyone, was always graceful, and as I got a little older, I wondered, how could she remain so believing in the system, even though the way she was treated?” Bryant said. “But, I understand as I got a little older, you don't match hate with hate.”
He credits Smith with inspiring his love of reading, thanks to her insistence that he read a page of “To Kill a Mockingbird” every day before heading out to play.
Smith died in 2017. Bryant said Sarasota is losing many of its influential Black educators.
“I can walk down the street and remember about these ladies there; they are in their nineties, but we’re losing them, day by day, all the time, and that’s why I appreciate both Vicki and a few people that, when you say Newtown Alive, try to keep it going,” he said.
Mary Butler, president of Amaryllis Park Neighborhood Association, also proudly indicated an ornament on the tree featuring her picture.
“I’m born and raised in Newtown, and it’s an honor to have the baton passed to me and to continue our legacy,” she said.
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.