SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - The year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American to play major league baseball, he fled the racist threats of townspeople in Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was shot 66 years later.
It was 1946 and Robinson arrived in this picturesque town in central Florida for spring training with a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team. He didn’t stay long.
Robinson was forced to leave Sanford twice, according to Chris Lamb, a professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, who wrote a graphic account of Robinson’s brush with 100 angry locals in a 2004 book.
The house where Robinson slept during his brief and furtive stay in Sanford still stands, but there is no historical plaque to record his troubled visit before going on to become a baseball hero and an icon of the U.S. civil rights movement.
“A specter of Jackie Robinson” haunts the city of 53,000 people to this day, said Lamb. “People want to forget it and it shouldn’t be forgotten.”
While those days of segregation are now relegated to history, racial tension persists in Sanford, rekindled of late by the February 26 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, at the hands of a white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman.
Calls for “Justice for Trayvon” have grown after prosecutors declined to charge Zimmerman, who says he acted in self defense. Protesters, led by prominent black civil rights activists, have demanded that Zimmerman be arrested.
“We’ve come from the plantation, from the outhouse to the White House. You can’t shoot our children no more,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told one recent protest rally in Miami.
Lawyers for Zimmerman say the case should not be viewed through a racial lens. “This case is not about racism, it’s a case of self-defense,” Craig Sonner, one of Zimmerman’s attorneys, told Reuters, adding that the public should not rush to judgment. “When all the evidence comes out it will be seen by all that this case is not racially motivated.”
Still, the case fueled resentment “that if you’re black and you’re shot, particularly by someone who’s not black, that it is not viewed as seriously,” said Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte, who is black.
“That’s why some feel that Mr. Zimmerman was allowed to just go on his way while Mr. Martin went to a morgue. And certainly if it was reversed, and Zimmerman had been black, he would have been detained and arrested,” he added.
A special prosecutor appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott is investigating the case to decide if charges are warranted. The Justice Department’s civil rights division is also examining the killing for evidence of a possible hate crime.
As in many cities across America, black mistrust of the police and judicial officials in Sanford runs deep.
Last month, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held two town hall meetings in Sanford where hundreds of black residents turned out to voice their concern over police conduct.
“They put these black boys in jail on all kinds of bogus charges,” one woman speaker, Lela King, told a packed church.
“You can go from town to town, city to city, and you could pack churches like this with African Americans, explaining that this is just a part of their everyday life,” said another speaker, landscaper Hannibal Duncan.
NAACP officials compiled details at those meetings of at least six incidents involving alleged police misconduct that they plan to turn over to the Justice Department for possible investigation, an NAACP spokesman said.
Sanford police said only two complaints about alleged misconduct or biased-based policing have been filed with the department since the start of 2010. A police spokesman said he is unaware of how both complaints were resolved.
“What took place (with Martin’s shooting) ... was not typical for Sanford ... Sanford is a good community, a welcoming community,” said Bonaparte.
A guide for visitors to historic Sanford, “Florida’s Friendly City,” presents a warm and embracing city almost like something out of Disney World in nearby Orlando, but it does not totally ignore the less welcoming attitudes of the past.
Much of the town, which is about 30 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic, looks like Anywhere, USA, with its shopping mall district, Harley Davison dealership and ubiquitous fast-food chains.
In the downtown area, Victorian-era cottages and old brick office buildings sitting a wide and alligator-infested bulge in the St. Johns River, provide a glimpse of the past - but not all of it. There are no reminders of the lynch mobs and Ku Klux Klan members who once killed blacks with impunity in Sanford and elsewhere across Florida.
Florida was the site of more lynchings per capita than any other southern state, according to Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society. Lynchings were common in the southern U.S. in the second half of 19th century and continued into the 20th century.
Prior to the Second Seminole Indian War of the 1830s runaway slaves from states north of Florida found sanctuary among the American Indian communities in central Florida, Brotemarkle said.
A once booming inland port and transportation hub with riverboat and railroad connections for south Florida, modern day Sanford was named for Henry Shelton Sanford, a Connecticut lawyer and diplomat who became a pioneering citrus grower in the 1870s.
Sanford tried using black laborers to work in his groves. But he wound up contracting immigrants from Sweden and Europe instead, due to what the visitors guide describes as the “violent reaction of some locals,” who objected to the very idea of employing black farmhands.
The city’s museum has a small display with a newspaper clipping documenting Sanford’s shabby treatment of Robinson, But the Swedish immigrants, who founded the community of New Upsala and are credited with becoming some of Sanford’s most civic-minded citizens, get more prominent billing.
The sole African American on Sanford’s city commission, Velma Williams, 70, sees some positive signs. “Despite this tragedy, some good is going to come out of it,” she said. “This subject which no one wants to talk about - race relations - will occur. We’re going to have to get together.”
The town is a close-knit community where segregation is a thing of the past, said Theo Hollerbach, 54, a German-born chef and owner of the Willow Tree Café in Sanford’s historic area.
So far, he has supported the protesters who have marched through Sanford’s streets calling for justice, he said, noting how peaceful they have been.
Some community and church leaders from the mayor on down fear that the protests over the Martin killing could turn ugly if Zimmerman does not end up in court.
In an interview with Reuters in his city hall office, Bonaparte said he was urging patience and time for Angela Corey, the special prosecutor appointed by the governor, to reach her decision.
He added: “This touched a nerve in America about black life, particularly young black male youths, not being valued.”
Additional reporting by Kevin Gray; Editing by David Adams and Jackie Frank