Black settler helped Sarasota grow

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NOTE: This story was written by Sarasota County Preservationist Lorrie Muldowney, and was originally published on the Sarasota History Alive website. It is reprinted here with permission. 

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Sarasota's first black settler was Lewis Colson. Colson came to Sarasota in 1884 to assist Richard E. Paulson, an engineer for the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, in surveying the town of Sarasota.

A former slave, Colson remained in Sarasota throughout his life, contributing to the development of the community in many ways. The picture above is believed to be of Colson with his wife, Irene. It is among many unidentified photographs by Felix Pinard, who photographed Sarasota in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Lewis and Irene Colson started Sarasota's first black community in 1910. It consisted of several families. The Colsons also helped organize Sarasota's first black church, the Bethlehem Baptist Church, by selling land to the church trustees for one dollar. The church was built on the corner of today's Seventh Street and Central Avenue in 1899, and remained there until 1973. The hub of Sarasota's first black community, which came to be known as Overtown, was at the intersection of Central Avenue and Sixth Street. According to early maps of the area, by the mid-1920s, a thriving residential and business district existed there.

Businesses included a movie theater, pressing clubs, markets, lunch rooms, and grocery and general merchandise stores. Residences varied in size, but most were modest, one-story, wood frame structures with front porches. There was also a baseball park at 501 Lemon Avenue, according to the 1916 City Directory. The Colson Hotel was one of two hotels in the immediate area. Built by E.O. Burns and opened late in 1926, the hotel was for black tourists and residents. It was located on Eight Street just off Central Avenue. Described by the Sarasota Herald in an article dated December 15, 1926, the hotel was constructed of fine yellow stucco on hollow tile. The hotel contained 28 rooms and had a comfortable lobby with fireplace. Later it was named the Hotel Palm.

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