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Black life in the shadows of Jim Crow and Trayvon Martin

Updated

Long before the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin drew thousands of protestors to Sanford, Fla., to demand justice for the teen, this small southern town just outside of Orlando was wrestling with racial strife and economic inequality.

Like so many other American towns, Sanford is two largely distinct worlds: one white and one black. Most of Sanford’s African-American residents live in a handful ofneighborhoods like Goldsboro and Midway, where employment opportunities are low and poverty and hopelessness run high. Violence, including gunfire, is common. And many black residents complain of harsh, unfair treatment by the police.

Income and achievement gaps in Sanford have widened in the decades since Civil Rights era victories had theoretically thinned the boundaries between the races. But race relations in Sanford and in the Goldsboro neighborhood in particular are especially thorny. Henry Shelton Sanford, an American diplomat who served in the Congo, founded Sanford in 1870 and later argued that America would be better off if blacks were returned to Africa.

 In 1891 Goldsboro was incorporated and became the second all-black town incorporated in the state, after Eatonville, the town made famous by author Zora Neal Hurston in  “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

But in 1911 Sanford expanded and stripped Goldsboro of its charter, absorbing the city into Sanford proper.

Goldsboro’s institutions were dismantled, including the post office, the jail and many of the black-owned businesses. Streets named for Goldsboro’s black founding fathers were changed to numbers instead.

In 1946 Sanford’s police chief famously forced Jackie Robinson out of a minor-league baseball game, refusing to let him integrate the exhibition. “The Robinsons were run out of Sanford, Fla., with threats of violence,” Robinson’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, later wrote.

During the Civil Rights era, city leaders cemented over Sanford’s lone public pool rather than allow black children to swim in it.

In more recent years there have been controversies around police shootings involving unarmed black men and a string of homicides that remain unsolved: many locals believe that police don’t expend resources investigating killings with black victims.

Much of Sanford is the stuff of postcards, with red-bricked streets downtown and a picturesque waterfront. Crooked oak and willow trees hunch over lazy roads. Further away from downtown are the fruits of Sanford’s more recent sprawl, with newer developments similar to the gated community where Martin was killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer.

It was along 13th Street, recently renamed Historic Goldsboro Blvd. where anger over Martin’s killing first spilled over. The homegrown protests were fueled by anger at the death of an unarmed boy just past his 17th birthday, but also by decades of frustration in this besieged community.

In interviews with MSNBC and images captured by photographer Wayne Lawrence, the people of Goldsboro tell their stories of struggle, resilience and what’s it’s like to be black in Sanford.

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