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August 29, 2015

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Florida town somberly absorbs Zimmerman verdict

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Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

Business owner Howard Marks talks about the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial in Sanford, Fla., Sunday, July 14, 2013. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was found not guilty in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman Trial Sanford

Lashauna Banks, left, of Gainesville, Fla., watches as her mother, Tara Banks, right, is consoled by Julie Yvette May, of Gordon, Ga. during a rally for Trayvon Martin outside the grounds of the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Fla., Sunday, July 14, 2013. George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the 2012 shooting death of Martin. Launch slideshow »

Zimmerman Trial Reaction

A protester stomps on a van during a demonstration in reaction to the acquittal of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Monday, July 15, 2013, in Los Angeles. Anger over the acquittal of a U.S. neighborhood watch volunteer who shot dead an unarmed black teenager continued Monday, with civil rights leaders saying mostly peaceful protests will continue this weekend with vigils in dozens of cities. Launch slideshow »

George Zimmerman Trial

George Zimmerman, left, stands with defense counsel Mark O'Mara during closing arguments in his trial at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, in Sanford, Fla., July 12, 2013. Launch slideshow »

SANFORD, Fla. — Nearly 70 years after Jackie Robinson was run out of town, Sanford is absorbing what some see as another blow to race relations: the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Some black residents of this community of almost 50,000 people where the shooting took place say that while relations between black and white have improved over the years, progress has been slow and the Martin case demonstrated that problems persist.

James Tillman, who is black, said Saturday's verdict just adds to his mistrust of local authorities, who have been criticized over the years for their handling of other crimes against blacks. Tillman, 47, said city officials try to portray Sanford as a "quiet and laid-back town."

"This town here is one of the worst towns about covering things up," Tillman said, stopping his bike in front of a memorial to the 17-year-old Martin. "When you put something in the closet, it's going to burst back on you."

Sanford, a mostly middle-class suburb of Orlando, about 25 miles away, has reacted somberly — and peacefully — to the verdict. The city was mostly silent the morning after the verdict, in contrast to the rallies that drew thousands not long after the shooting.

Only a few people went past the permanent memorial built in the city's historically black Goldsboro neighborhood to honor the Miami teen.

Standing in front of the memorial, Venitta Robinson, the minister at Allen Chapel, said she hopes the black community doesn't dwell on the verdict.

"It's a little disheartening, but that was the process we go through as far as having a jury, and that's the verdict that they had, and we have to respect that," said Robinson, who is black. "We don't necessarily have to like it, but we have to respect it."

In just the 17 months since the killing, Sanford has changed: The city, which is about one-third black, now has a black police chief and its first black city manager.

Before the shooting, Sanford was best known for its antiques shops and as the southern terminus for Amtrak's Autotrain, which carries tourists and their cars between Florida and the Washington area.

The police department was heavily criticized for declining to charge Zimmerman at first, and he wasn't arrested until 44 days after the shooting, by order of a special prosecutor.

But the distrust between Sanford's city government and its black citizens predates the Martin case by several decades.

A large portion of the black community lives in Goldsboro, which was Florida's second city incorporated by African-Americans when it was founded in 1891. Tensions were inflamed when an expanding Sanford annexed Goldsboro in 1911.

In 1946, Sanford was the site of the botched start of Robinson's first steps toward breaking baseball's color barrier.

Robinson had been sent to Sanford for his first spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers' minor-league Montreal Royals. Two days after he arrived, he was sent to the Dodgers' minor-league team in Daytona Beach after getting death threats from Sanford residents.

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breaking into the majors, then-Sanford Mayor Larry Dale issued a proclamation apologizing for Robinson's treatment.

That tension has re-emerged in recent years because of several shootings of blacks and an attack on a black homeless man.

In 2010 Justin Collison, the 21-year-old son of a white Sanford police lieutenant, was videotaped leaving a bar and punching a homeless man named Sherman Ware in the back of the head, causing serious injuries.

Police officers arrived within minutes, looked at the video and spoke to witnesses who said the attack was unprovoked, but they let Collison go after he called his father.

After the video became public and spurred protests, Collison was charged almost two months later with battery and disorderly conduct. He struck a plea bargain and was sentenced to probation, anger management and substance abuse counseling — but no jail time.

In February 2010, Dennis Williams was shot on the front steps of his home while he held his 9-month-old son. Police have never been able to identify a suspect.

That same month, a Sanford police investigator shot and killed Nicholas Eugene Scott in his car as officers tried to arrest him in a supermarket parking lot. Prosecutors ruled the shooting justified.

Cecil Smith, who became police chief earlier this year after Bill Lee Jr. lost his job in the fallout over the Martin case, promised at a prayer service on Monday to try to ease the mistrust in the community.

"Everyone is watching the people of Sanford," he said. "We may not have liked the outcome of this trial, but we are united enough to say we are starting to move forward."

In downtown Sanford, business owners hope tourism will rebound from the hit it has taken from the furor.

Howard Marks, a civil rights attorney and owner of an art gallery in Sanford's historic district, said the city has been unfairly cast as a racist and dangerous place.

"Sanford's got issues like any other town," said Marks, who is white, "but this town is as good a town with as good a people as any town in the state of Florida."

He added: "The case is never going to be over in some people's mind. But I think as far as Sanford, the worst of that is over."

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