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A New Mural in the Rosemary District Pays Homage to Leonard Reid, One of Sarasota's Most Important Black Leaders

A large image of Reid, the "right-hand man" of Sarasota's first mayor, is now displayed on the side of The Sarasota Modern hotel in the Rosemary District.

By Kim Doleatto June 16, 2023

Leonard Reid leading a horse-drawn cart. Blanche Gillespie is among the passengers.

A century-old black and white image of a man leading a horse-drawn cart on the side of The Sarasota Modern in the Rosemary District doesn't immediately align with the hotel’s hip, midcentury modern-themed style—but the connection between the two runs deep.

The man in the hat is Leonard Reid, and the photo was taken in the early 1900s. Reid is one of the pioneers of early Sarasota, back when the Rosemary District was called Overtown, a bustling, vibrant Black community of businesses, artisans, a school and churches. The community  both contained and self-sufficient "because it had to be, due to segregation," says Walter Gilbert, who made the mural happen (it's actually a print of the original photo from the Sarasota County History Center). Gilbert, a Sarasota native, is vice-president for diversity and inclusion at Selby Gardens. He also leads an initiative in his name that's memorializing the Black figureheads who helped shape Sarasota. That's happening by painting murals throughout the historically Black neighborhood, which was bounded on the north and south by today's 10th and Fifth Streets and on the west and east by U.S. 41 and Orange Avenue.

Mark Zeitouni, the hotel owners' asset manager, didn't know who Reid was when Gilbert approached him about putting up the mural at the Sarasota Modern. But that's not surprising.

The image went up the east side of the hotel building on June 8.

Image: Mark Zeitouni

"Gentrification, displacement and culture erasure took place in Overtown, similar to other low-income, urban areas across the country," says Vicki Oldham, president and CEO of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, which is dedicated to preserving Sarasota's history through the nonprofit Newtown Alive. "Their culture, history and landmarks were replaced with trendy shops, restaurants and high-rise condos. They had no say as affluent, white, college-educated residents took over their community."

Now, thanks to the 25-foot-long mural, the word about Reid is out. "When Walter Gilbert came to us, it clicked with our goals and values and was a no-brainer to have [the mural] up on our wall," says Zeitouni. 

Reid, who played a significant role in the development of Sarasota's Black community's growth and settlement until his death in 1952, arrived in Sarasota in 1900 and bought his 1926 cottage with his wife, Eddye. It sat on the very place where The Sarasota Modern is, on the corner of Boulevard of the Arts and Central Avenue, just north of downtown, until roughly 1972. 

Indeed, the Rosemary District looked a lot different not so long ago, before gentrification, which picked up quickly after WWII, according to Gilbert. A more recent zoning change in the area, allowing for higher density and height changes for buildings, has quickly led to a flurry of boutiques, restaurants, offices and condos still going up today.

According to Sarasota History Alive, Reid met Col. Hamilton Gillespie, the town's first mayor, an important early developer and promoter. Gillespie was also the local manager of a Scottish investment company Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, which owned the land that would eventually become Sarasota.

Within a short time, Reid became Gillespie's manservant, butler, coachman and constant companion. The colonel and his wife encouraged and supported Reid in continuing his education and buying land. The Reids also established Sarasota's second oldest Black church, Payne Chapel, the AME Methodist Church, which was founded in 1906. 

The Reid house, which has been historically designated and moved to 2529 N. Orange Ave., is the future home of the Sarasota African American Art Center and History Museum and also has historical significance through its association with Reid's two daughters, Ethel Reid Hayes and Viola Reid. Both taught in Sarasota schools and in the Helen Payne Nursery, a pioneer preschool program in Sarasota for Black children.

One of those children was Oldham. "I was taught by Ethel Reid, and [the community] has an emotional connection to the family and their house," she says.

The sisters lived in the home until Hayes' death in 1991. Viola Reid was forced to sell the property due to failing health in 1995.  Today, the Reid family members are all buried at the Oaklands/Woodlawn Cemetery.

"Reid was one of the engines that made the community thrive," Gilbert says. "These people are historic figures. They were just as important as Burns and Gillespie, who were lighter-skinned, not only to Overtown but the City of Sarasota as a whole. People who come here from outside need to know they're living where those people did."

In addition to Reid, the neighborhood is also home to murals of pioneer educator Emma E. Booker, baseball legend Buck O'Neil, and Lewis Colson, who drove the first stake to survey the land and plat the town and opened Sarasota's first church for the Black community.

The cost of printing and installing the Reid mural was roughly $10,000. Funding was provided by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

Thanks to the murals and historic markers, plus a hotel staff who now knows all bout Reid and his image on on the hotel's wall, his legacy can live on. And trolley tour guides who highlight the city's historic leaders will now be able to stop by the murals to point to some of the city's earliest Black pioneers.

"The county markers and murals are all we have left," says Oldham.

To book a tour, email [email protected] or click here.

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