Trayvon Martin case reveals undercurrent of racial tension, distrust in Sanford

"Sanford never moved out of the '70s," Francis Oliver said. "There is still an invisible line between the blacks and the whites." (Gary W. Green, Orlando Sentinel)

In its attitudes toward outsiders, Old Sanford retains the heritage of small Southern towns where guests, visitors and newcomers are extended gracious Southern hospitality but are never accepted as insiders. Unless you were born here, you can live in Sanford all your life and still be an outsider.

Bill Painter, who bought the Colonial Room in 1977, said he enjoyed the camaraderie with charter members of Old Sanford while he owned the restaurant. He tailored his menu to their tastes, opened the back room of his restaurant for their Rotary, Kiwanis and Optimists meetings. He played golf and went to Florida Gators football games with them.

"I was never one of them. They were great to me, but you could tell the ones who were born and raised here and went to school together," said Painter, 71. "It was just a different relationship."

When he sold the restaurant a year ago to a Venezuelan family, the new owners were given a friendly piece of advice from their Old Sanford customers: Don't change anything.

"The first week, one of the customers told me, 'Did you know when you bought this restaurant, this isn't your restaurant? It's our restaurant,' " said Maria Lengua, 37, daughter-in-law of the owners. "He wanted me to be aware of what Sanford was — the heritage, the roots, the history."

Old Sanford points out that Trayvon Martin was an outsider from Miami and George Zimmerman was from Virginia. The shooting took place in one of the newer, outlying gated subdivisions that, although technically inside the city limits, aren't really Sanford.

The attitude toward outsiders exists within the black community as well. There are families that go back generations. There are Old Sanford black leaders as entrenched as their white counterparts. Clayton Turner Jr., a Sanford native, has been president of the Seminole Branch of the NAACP for 24 years. In that same time period, the NAACP's Orange Branch has had eight presidents.

Paul Benjamin, who moved to Sanford in 1994 and founded the Central Florida Dream Center in Goldsboro, said the Old Sanford in the black community is still tied to past injustices.

"The newer generation wants to move forward, but they are held captive in the bubble of the old stories of the old," said Benjamin, 47.

Sanford's instinct to blame the outside world is ingrained in how the city perceives itself and how it is viewed by others.

A different image

Jason and Kimmy Skipper moved into their 1925 home on a shady street in an older Sanford neighborhood in 2002. They ride bikes to the farmers market on Saturday to buy jars of honey, handmade soap and fresh cucumbers. They've found a place outside of town that still sells vegetables on the honor system. They attend the Alive After 5street festival in downtown Sanford that once a month draws thousands of people to sample food vendors, listen to live music and purchase art.

The neighbors on their street hold Halloween and Christmas parties, school's-out gatherings and Fourth of July block parties.

"The neighborhood is quiet, peaceful," said Kimmy Skipper, 36, who grew up in Orlando. "We knew this is where we were meant to be."

This wasn't the Sanford the Skippers expected when they were house-hunting. Both grew up with a different image of Sanford in their minds.

"I just thought it was low-income, a dangerous place to be," said Jason Skipper, 36, who grew up in Fern Park.

That was the image many people had of Sanford — poor, black, dangerous — when Sara Jacobson spearheaded a public-image-renovation campaign for the city in the late 1990s.

"We gave a different slant. We gave the wonderful waterfront. We gave the old historic homes. We gave the wonderful downtown with the mix of antiques and heritage," Jacobson said. "We also promoted the solidarity of the community."

Seminole's stepchild

Founded in 1877, Sanford is the oldest, poorest, blackest community in the most suburban and wealthiest county in Central Florida. It has the highest percentage of black residents of any Seminole city, comprising 29 percent of the city's population. It has the lowest median-household income and the highest poverty rate of any city in Seminole County. It has the highest overall crime rate in Seminole County but has seen that change in recent years. Robbery, assault, theft and arson have all declined in the past decade.