SARASOTA, FL – As part of its Botanical Briefings Lecture Series, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens recently presented Vickie Oldham – journalist and director of the groundbreaking historic preservation project “Newtown Alive” – who led a fascinating panel discussion and Q&A. Panelists recounted Sarasota’s rich African-American history and shared personal, coming-of-age stories about the Selby and Payne families while working alongside groundskeepers on the properties , joyriding and running errands with “Uncle Bill,” scaling the wall surrounding the Christy and Anne Payne house, and watching the local Civil Rights movement unfold as teenagers.
The Selbys moved to Sarasota in the mid-1920s and enjoyed their beloved home for 50 years. Christy and Anne Payne built their retirement home adjacent to the Selbys in 1934. The Paynes lived a more formal existence, with a domestic staff that included a butler/chauffeur, a maid, cook, laundress, boat captain and a gardener.
Ken Waters, the grandson of live-in-cook, Effie Blue, grew up in the Payne mansion from 5-16 years of age. Waters knows the residence inside and out, from the front door and bayside rooms to the safe space in the basement. The Waters and Paynes were like family and Ken became close to the Selbys as well – enjoying fishing and running errands with “Uncle Bill.”
The late Lymus Dixon Sr. was a chef in the U.S. Army and, after serving his country, became a groundskeeper for William and Marie Selby. The Newtown family was gifted with a home and new car every few years, according to late Lymus Dixon Jr. The young man came of age at what is now known as Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. The two families were intertwined.
During the summer months, the Dixon brothers tagged along to “help” their father with the landscaping work. More often than not, Lymus ran errands with “Uncle Bill” and his childhood friend, Ken Waters, who lived next door at the Payne Mansion. The trio had fun joyriding on Sarasota Bay in Mr. Selby’s boat with “Cap,” the captain.
Grover Yancey was the Selby’s gardener until his retirement in 1992, at the age of 76. Telling his story was Carolyn Yancy Harper, a lifelong resident of Sarasota and the grandniece of Mr. Yancy. Harper is the daughter of Hugh (nephew of Grover Yancy) and Iris Yancy. Carolyn is a retired educator, graduate of Emma E. Booker Elementary, Booker Middle and High Schools; and North Carolina A&T State University.
Guests heard how the Payne and Selby families became very close to their employees: Lymus Dixon Sr. named two of his children after William and Marie Selby. Mrs. Selby became extremely close to her live-in cook and companion, Juanita Hamilton, for two decades after Mr. Selby passed. The fishing trips enjoyed by William Selby, Waters and Dixon.
The hour-long journey through history was filled with stories of courage, resilience, and determination by African-American pioneers on the Suncoast. Joining the panel about halfway through the program were former Sarasota Mayor Fredd Atkins and James Brown, a history scholar and retired State College of Florida administrator. Guests learned that the idyllic atmosphere enjoyed by the Dixons, Waters, Yancys, Carters Roberts, and Mrs. Juanita Hamilton on the Selby grounds during the Civil Rights Movement were unlike the experiences of African Americans in Sarasota in general.
Waters talked about how his great-grandmother would convene large groups of African Americans to walk into whites-only restaurants and sit steadfastly at tables in protest. The panelists also talked about the impact of school desegregation and busing, which took place in the 1960s.
“Sarasota’s infrastructure was built by African-American laborers. They worked while pushing for equal rights and access to public spaces,” said Oldham. “I’m not the same person that I was when I started this project. My hope is that young leaders will be empowered by these great stories, then step up to lead.”
The event also included a book sale and signing of Oldham’s book, “Newtown Alive: Courage, Dignity, and Determination.”
“Newtown Alive” began as a project to trace the 100-year history of the African-American community of Newtown but has quickly expanded into a cultural heritage tourism initiative that is causing residents and visitors to take a second look at the neighborhood through a different lens. For more information, go to newtownalive.org.