What could get 20 first-year students from New College to roam as far as Spanish Point and Snead Island, and into the historic cemeteries and neighborhoods of Sarasota’s Newtown?
The answer: a first-ever course called Discover SRQ, that takes students far from campus and into contact with historians, activists, politicians and everyday people of Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The course, taught by Professor of Anthropology Uzi Baram and Assistant Director for Community Engagement Andrea Knies, applies traditional academic approaches and field work in the community surrounding New College. The ideas behind Discover SRQ come from a class taught at De Paul University in Chicago.
Many New College students were unaware of this area’s rich history prior to joining the program. “Sarasota on the surface may look boring, but once you dig underneath, there’s a whole lot of things to find,” Baram said.
While he labored over which of the many areas of heritage to explore this semester, Knies handled the logistics, coordinating with leaders of the community in order to make each trip possible. So far, the sites they have visited include the Native American mounds on Snead Island, nature preserves, the late 1800s Whitaker Cemetery, the South Florida Museum, and Spanish Point, the sites of ancient villages. The Historic Spanish Point Museum is now currently seeking an intern from New College after students visited.
Most recently, the class took a trolley to Newtown, which housed early and large populations of African Americans in the Sarasota area from the 1900s and onward. Newtown remained segregated into the 1960s and Sarasota did not see an African American on the City Commission until discriminating election methods were ruled unconstitutional, enabling the people to elect Fredd Atkins in 1985. Today, Newtown contends with gentrification, which would warp this area to match the white, upper-middle class image of the rest of central Sarasota.
As the trolley drove through Newtown, students passed several murals and local street art, but they also passed countless construction zones and flawlessly painted buildings, where it would not be hard to imagine art once stood. “In four more years, this area will look entirely different,” Baram said.
Vickie Oldham, the Newtown Conservation Historic District consultant, led the tour. She took students to the Rosemary Cemetery, the burial place for many founding members of Newtown, as well as the locations of old local businesses and family houses over one hundred years old.
Along the way, Oldham incorporated a personal touch to the tour, picking up a resident who lived in Newtown for several decades, since he was a child, and knocking on the door of another and asking them to tell students their family history. Every road the tour took seemed to house one Newtown enthusiast or another that Oldham knew.
Baram spoke extensively about the intersection of social justice and heritage, particularly in the case of Newtown. “I hope a sense of activism is what students get out of exploring the area,” he said. “To just go out and do it. We’re living in an age of heritage. Identity is an especially important aspect today and contributes to the sense of self.”
According to students, that’s exactly what they’ve learned. First-year Helen Deberri, who happened to discover the program by chance and immediately fell in love, explained what Discover SRQ meant to her: “One of the many things I have learned in this class is that the seemingly impossible is never really impossible. I have learned to never underestimate people. They have been and will continue to be capable of miraculous things.”
For her, and for many of the students in the program, the trip to Newtown acted as a source of inspiration to dig into the histories and heritages of the Sarasota area. Students will continue exploration, with two more trips planned: one to a historic center and the other, the final project, to downtown Sarasota.