Cumberland Times-News

July 15, 2013

Florida town absorbs verdict in Neighborhood Watch case

Middle-class suburb of Orlando, Fla., reacts somberly and peacefully

KYLE HIGHTOWER
Associated Press

— SANFORD, Fla. — Nearly 70 years after Jackie Robinson was run out of town, Sanford is absorbing what some see as another blow to race relations: the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Some black residents of this community of almost 50,000 people where the shooting took place say that while relations be-tween black and white have im-proved over the years, progress has been slow and the Martin case demonstrated that problems persist.

James Tillman, who is black, said Saturday’s verdict just adds to his mistrust of local authorities, who have been criticized over the years for their handling of other crimes against blacks. Tillman, 47, said city officials try to portray Sanford as a “quiet and laid-back town.”

“This town here is one of the worst towns about covering things up,” Tillman said, stopping his bike in front of a memorial to the 17-year-old Martin. “When you put something in the closet, it’s going to burst back on you.”

Sanford, a mostly middle-class suburb of Orlando, about 25 miles away, has reacted somberly — and peacefully — to the verdict. The city was mostly silent the morning after the verdict, in contrast to the rallies that drew thousands not long after the shooting.

Only a few people went past the permanent memorial built in the city’s historically black Goldsboro neighborhood to honor the Miami teen.

Standing in front of the memorial, Venitta Robinson, the minister at Allen Chapel, said she hopes the black community doesn’t dwell on the verdict.

“It’s a little disheartening, but that was the process we go through as far as having a jury, and that’s the verdict that they had, and we have to respect that,” said Robinson, who is black. “We don’t necessarily have to like it, but we have to respect it.”

In just the 17 months since the killing, Sanford has changed: The city, which is about one-third black, now has a black police chief and its first black city manager.

Before the shooting, Sanford was best known for its antiques shops and as the southern terminus for Amtrak’s Autotrain, which carries tourists and their cars between Florida and the Washington area.

The police department was heavily criticized for declining to charge Zimmerman at first, and he wasn’t arrested until 44 days after the shooting, by order of a special prosecutor.

But the distrust between Sanford’s city government and its black citizens predates the Martin case by several decades.

A large portion of the black community lives in Goldsboro, which was Florida’s second city incorporated by African-Americans when it was founded in 1891. Tensions were inflamed when an expanding Sanford annexed Goldsboro in 1911.

In 1946, Sanford was the site of the botched start of Jackie Robinson’s first steps toward breaking baseball’s color barrier.

Robinson had been sent to Sanford for his first spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor-league Montreal Royals. Two days after he arrived, he was sent to the Dodgers’ minor-league team in Daytona Beach after getting death threats from Sanford residents.

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking into the majors, then-Sanford Mayor Larry Dale issued a proclamation apologizing for Robinson’s treatment.

That tension has re-emerged in recent years because of several shootings of blacks and an attack on a black homeless man.