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)

"Sanford never moved out of the '70s," Francis Oliver said. "There is still an invisible line between the blacks and the whites. That's what happened with Trayvon Martin. People started crossing the line."

In a place that stamps its history on the sides of buildings with shiny brass plaques and on street corners with the raised lettering of historical markers, the black community remembers its history as well.

It remembers that the city of Sanford dissolved Goldsboro, the second-oldest black community in Florida in 1910, and made it part of Sanford. It remembers other times, before Trayvon Martin, when blacks in Sanford marched in protest over the plans to close the black high school; the banning of blacks from setting foot inside the new civic center; and the new municipal swimming pool that was off-limits to black residents.

The response from the white community, old-timers and newcomers, is often that it's too late to change the past.

"I'm not negating how the black community feels, but we can't change history," Kuhn said. "Let's all of us move forward, but the African-American community has to also."

The denial of the past, in a city that reveres its history, leads to myths of racial harmony that persist into the present.

Pat Smith said that, when she moved to Sanford from Alabama in 1960 at age 11, she asked her grandmother why the city wasn't experiencing any racial problems as other Southern cities were.

"She told me when the NAACP tried to come in to Sanford, the black people said, 'We don't have a problem. We don't need you,' " said Smith, 63, who now lives in Casselberry.

Blacks tell a different version. The NAACP has been active in Sanford since the 1940s, when it organized Goldsboro residents to face down the Ku Klux Klan, Oliver said.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, Sanford's black community already was frustrated with the lack of arrests in the deaths of seven other black men. Martin's death made one too many. His face joined the others in a flier distributed by community activists who created a Facebook page called Justice for Our Community.

"Other kids got shot, and nothing happened," said Roosevelt Cummings, 68, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Sanford, which picketed for the arrest of George Zimmerman and the firing of police Chief Bill Lee. "Blacks just said, 'Enough is enough. It's time.' "

Trayvon Martin's death could have happened anywhere. But it happened in Sanford, a city in transition, divided against itself. Whatever the outcome, like it or not, Trayvon Martin is now part of Sanford's history.

Inside one of the glass display cases of Goldsboro's black-history museum is a bright-yellow pass to the March 26 City Commission meeting on the Trayvon Martin shooting. It was the day the world came to town, uninvited, and set siege to Sanford. or 407-420-5392

About the series

In the Trayvon Martin case, the shadow of race has stretched from a rainy night in late February to the national uproar that followed the death of the unarmed teenager to continuing revelations about shooter George Zimmerman. It has sparked demonstrations and renewed criticism of a dual standard of justice in the United States. During the next several months, the exclusive Orlando Sentinel series "In the Shadow of Race" will explore the racial backdrop of the Trayvon tragedy, looking at how race has shaped the history of Sanford and how it shapes our attitudes today.

Nearly a dozen Orlando Sentinel staff members are contributing to the exclusive series "In the Shadow of Race." Today's kick-off installment was written by veteran reporter Jeff Kunerth, who covers race, religion and demographics for the Sentinel. Photographs and video were shot by Gary Green. The series is edited by Kim Marcum and Sal Recchi with photography editor Cassie Armstrong.