The Rosemary District: Sarasota’s Historic Past

The Rosemary District: Sarasota's Historic Past

The Rosemary District: Sarasota’s Historic Past. The Rosemary District is experiencing a revival or sorts with a variety of new building projects springing up, taking this district to the next level and creating an arts district that is vastly walkable. It’s even more interesting to see where the Rosemary District is going when you understand where its come from.

The Rosemary District was once known as Overtown and was part of the original Town of Sarasota, dating back to 1885.  African Americans first settled this district as early as the 1890s and the area became known as “Black Bottom”. Evidence of this initial settlement can be found at the SE corner Central Ave. and Blvd. of the Arts where a marker has been placed that reads “First Black Community“. The marker was dedicated in 1985 by the Sarasota County Historical Commission and explains the story of the first Black settlers to this area. In 1884, Lewis Colson, the first black settler to Sarasota, assisted in surveying the Town of Sarasota and by 1886 several Black families had established themselves here.

In the beginning, school was taught out of Josie Washington’s home, but a public school– Sarasota Grammar School– was established in 1912 with Wright Bush, Henry Clark, Elbert Clark,  J.P Carter, Campbell Mitchell,  John Mays, John Woods, Ed Carmichael, and J.H. Glover serving as trustees. Emma Booker served as the principle of this school for many years after moving to Sarasota in 1910. By 1935, Booker had helped expand the school with the first class graduating that year. Booker played such an important part in the education system that three Sarasota schools have been named after her: Emma E. Booker Elementary, Booker Middle School, and Booker High School.

The area adopted the name change to Overtown in the mid-1920s, during the height of the Florida real estate boom that led residents to invest and purchase land. Community activity abounded and new amenities were built along 6th street like a movie theater, billiards hall, barbershop, department store, ice cream parlor, auto dealership, filling station, lunch counter, grocery store, print shop, and a furniture store.  The district was officially renamed “The Rosemary District” in 1994 in honor of the Rosemary Cemetery that was established in 1886 at 8th Street and Central Ave. In 2003, the Rosemary Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Evidence of this area’s strongly African-American past is still alive with the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, located right down the street from The Courtyard at Citrus! The WBTT was founded in 1999 by actor, singer, director, and playwright Nate Jacobs and is the only professional black theatre company on Florida’s west coast. The theatre has experienced great success with an average attendance rate of 94%.  The delicious restaurants of Citrus Square paired with a show from this nationally acclaimed troupe, makes for a great night out in The Rosemary District: Sarasota’s Historic Past.

Information provided by Sarasota History Alive and the Downtown Sarasota Alliance.