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Teen’s death reminds Sanford, Fla., of its history of racial tension

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012

Updated: Thursday, March 15, 2012 13:03

 

SANFORD, Fla. — In almost any community, the shooting death of a black teen by a white crime-watch volunteer would raise accusations of racism. But this one occurred in Sanford, a city that has struggled with racial tensions for a century.

Much of that tension stems from Sanford’s long history as an agricultural community that attracted laborers, many of them black, to work in the fields, farms and railroads, historians say. They formed Seminole County’s historic black communities of Georgetown, Goldsboro and Midway.

Founded by laborers in the late 19th century, Goldsboro was once an active center of black life and became the second town in Florida incorporated by blacks. But in 1911, Sanford stripped Goldsboro of its charter and took it over. The streets, named after its black pioneers, were quickly renamed.

“Ever since Goldsboro was taken over by Sanford, there has been tension,” said Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett.

The county seat of Seminole, Sanford has per capita income barely more than $20,000 a year, and nearly a third of its 54,000 residents are black, according to 2010 U.S. census data.

“Because it’s been an agricultural area for decades, it has had a higher percentage of poverty than the rest of the county,” said Jim Robison, a board member of the Seminole County Historical Commission. “And there are concentration of areas that are going to have conflicts with the police and neighboring communities.”

Many in Sanford say the seemingly slow pace by police to investigate last month’s shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is again raising suspicions that if shooter George Zimmerman were not white and the teen were not black, things would be different.

“I can tell you that if it was the other way around, someone would be in jail by now,” Ulysees Cunningham said Wednesday. At 80 years old, the retired contractor, who is black, has lived in Sanford for most of his life, long enough to have seen its racist side, he said.

He remembers decades ago when black diners walked into restaurants and were seated apart from whites. Even now, he has watched police cars cruise through his neighborhood off Celery Avenue all night, “even though nothing was going on.”

“By the police being slow-footed to arrest someone, it demonstrates that things are different for the black community,” said Vibert White, a history professor at the University of Central Florida. “They have ignited a powder keg by being slow, by being indecisive and by being arrogant by not arresting this man.”

Some are reminded of the 2010 incident when the white son of a Sanford police lieutenant was let go by police after sucker-punching a homeless black man outside a downtown bar.

Perry Echelberger, 64, who is white and has lived his entire life in Sanford, said it’s understandable to suspect an element of racism when police have not released all the details of Trayvon’s shooting.

“What’s frustrating is that all the facts haven’t been presented,” he said while walking down First Avenue in downtown Sanford. “Something occurred that night that caused that man (Zimmerman) to be on edge, to feel threatened. What was that threat? What does the 911 tape say?”

Triplett said he understands the frustration by residents.

“I think that when a young man is killed, more than a week and a half (for police to respond) is an enormous amount of time,” the Sanford mayor said. “But it’s part of the process that all the evidence, that everything, has to be gathered.

“But if it was one of my sons, I would be wondering what was going on.”

The Rev. James Watkins of Historic St. James AME Church in Georgetown said Sanford overall is “basically a peaceful community.”

“But because people are viewing this as a racially motivated crime, it has the community aggravated,” Watkins said. “If they (police) come out and release more details, if they release the 911 tape, it would calm things down.”

Zimmerman’s Neighborhood Watch group was started in September after residents reported at least three burglaries in the previous weeks, according to police.

Crime-watch volunteers are instructed to call police when they see anything suspicious, said Wendy Dorival, volunteer-program coordinator for Sanford Police.

“We actually tell them not to confront someone suspicious,” she said. “Call us. Our officers are the ones who are paid and trained to go out and deal with it.”

Even so, it has been more than two weeks since the teen’s death, and suspicions linger. The Rev. Randolph Bracy Jr., a former president of the Orange County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said there are still too many questions about the shooting.

“There are so many things, so many questions, that on the face of it, it looks like an unfair justice,” Bracy said. “And Sanford has a history of unfair justice.”

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