BY VICKIE OLDHAM
Fredd Atkins is on a mission to mold Newtown’s millennials into brave, resourceful, bold and resilient leaders who understand that everyone has a role to play in community improvement. After all, Atkins says Black pioneers such as Sarasota NAACP presidents John Rivers and Neil Humphrey led by example and encouraged young people to actively engage in neighborhood transformation.
This week, Atkins visited the Robert L. Taylor Center to share a bit of history with participants enrolled in a summer program there. A new “textbook” was used that developed from an idea that he initiated while serving as a Sarasota City Commissioners. After 18 years of public service, he left office but never stopped pitching and pushing the proposal. Eight months ago, Atkins’ dream of publishing a comprehensive report outlining Newtown’s 100 years of history was finally in development; and on June 6, the document, “Newtown Alive: Courage, Dignity and Determination” was completed and approved unanimously by Sarasota City Commissioners and Mayor Willie Shaw.
In a classroom surrounded by a small group of teenagers, Atkins turned to page 23 in Chapter 3 and began pointing out photographs of Newtown residents profiled in the document. “That’s Miss Alice Faye!” shouted one student surprised to see a familiar face in the 364-page book- let. Alice Faye Jones operates a free tutoring program called “Brothers and Sister’s Doing the Right Thing.” Other students quickly recognized Light of the World senior pastor Rev. Kel vin Lumpkin, the principal of Booker High School Dr. Rachel Shelley and Glossie Atkins. “This history book shows Newtown students that they can become leaders too because they see examples of what others they know have done,” said Atkins after a session with a larger group of younger summer camp participants.
Leadership is a subject that Atkins can comfort- ably discuss. He came of age during pivotal moments in Sarasota’s history. In the late 60’s, when Newtown students from age 6 to 18 participated in a boycott of Sarasota County public schools, freedom schools were quickly established in local churches. Atkins was among the Black upperclassmen joined by New College students who taught at the makeshift sites.
“The boycott was the kind of defining event that shapes one’s character and leaves a mark that lasts a lifetime,” Susan Burns wrote in a 1999 issue of Sarasota magazine. The experience was a pivotal moment in Atkins’ life as well, but his transformation from follower to leader began long before that.
As a boy in elementary school, his towering stature caused teachers to put him in charge of monitoring fellow classmates. Coaches allowed him to choose the best players for summer team sports.
When he wasn’t turning old bicycle tires into basketball rims or playing “Pop up” with a rubber hose, Chinaberries and a shaved palmetto limb, he was riding in the car with his Aunt Ruby to participate in the desegregation of Sarasota beaches. “I was a little boy. I have been in caravans when the police turned us around and sent us back to Newtown,” he recalled in the Newtown history book.
Atkins never watched events unfold from the sidelines, but was an active participant in history making battles for equal rights in his hometown. In 10th grade at Sarasota High School, he joined student leaders in staging protests over inequitable treatment of Newtown students and helped to quell riots.
SHS principal Gene Pilot listened to students’ concerns, saw their persistence, established a council to routinely address issues and appointed Atkins as vice president. “Of course, young people can shake up things. They can make a difference. In fact, it is their responsibility to do so. All of us are called to be responsible. We have to find out what our responsibility is, then move into that path,” Atkins said after parting with students headed to lunch.