SANFORD, Fla. — There is a memorial here for the dead teenager whose name everyone knows. Beneath Trayvon Martin’s name, which is etched in black granite, are placards bearing the names of nine others — all African American residents killed with less notice or outcry.
Trayvon was not from Sanford. He was not shot near his memorial in Goldsboro, one of this city’s historically black neighborhoods. He was shot three miles to the west, across the railroad tracks, past the highway, near the city limits, in a gated community bordered by brick walls and lilac trees. The unarmed 17-year-old visiting from Miami looked like he didn’t belong at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a keypad colony of 263 townhouses. After reporting the teenager’s “suspicious” presence to a police operator, a neighborhood watch volunteer engaged him.
Trayvon Martin's mother and father came to the court in Sanford, Fla., today for opening statements in George Zimmerman’s trial.
A jury of six women will begin hearing the murder trial of George Zimmerman, who says he killed teen Trayvon Martin in self-defense.
Monday morning a jury of six women will begin hearing the case of State of Florida v. George Zimmerman, who claims self-defense. Every case hinges on its particulars, but focusing on one event blurs the bigger picture.
Over the past 16 months, before a single piece of evidence was introduced, Sanford became the dateline of America’s 21st-century scrimmage with race. Goldsboro, burdened by unresolved murders of its young men, adopted Trayvon as one of its own. A month after the killing, the Rev. Al Sharpton suggested that Sanford could become a latter-day Selma, the Alabama town where the white establishment turned its police dogs loose on peaceful civil-rights marchers.
Sanford is not that. Sanford is a brick-paved main street lined with antique shops. Sanford is a forlorn acreage of shuttered housing projects whose closure scattered residents across town. Sanford is a small galaxy of gated communities with names like “Plantation Lakes” and “Hatteras Sound.”
Which Sanford was Trayvon visiting in February 2012? Which Sanford was Zimmerman protecting, or protecting against?
This is a Sanford story, to be sure, but its themes are more universal, and its beginning and end exist outside the bounds of a trial.
A town with a past
Its longtime nickname has been “The Friendly City,” and its features follow suit. Lake Monroe sparkles across Fort Mellon Park. Spanish moss veils the restored Florida Craftsman homes of Sanford’s historic district. Residents call it homespun yet upscale, folksy and artsy, a college town without a college and, as a T-shirt slogan goes, “a historical town with a drinking problem.” Or is it “a drinking town with a historical problem”?
Sanford’s history was written by celery and citrus, through waterways and land grabs. The Seminole Indians were battled out of Florida by U.S. soldiers in the first half of the 19th century. Diplomat Henry Shelton Sanford purchased 23 square miles of central Florida land in 1870 and incorporated his namesake city on Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River, a vital commercial route to Jacksonville and the Atlantic. Zora Neale Hurston, daughter of Eatonville and Sanford, wrote of the river having “catfish as long as a man” in her 1942 autobiography.