Newtown representatives ask the County Commission to consider honoring Betty J. Johnson, instead of Ed James
Late last November, at the request of a number of Newtown residents, the Sarasota County Commission authorized a formal process, under county guidelines, to rename the North Sarasota Public Library.
On Oct. 23, 2018, then-commission Chair Nancy Detert explained to her colleagues that she had received visitors representing Newtown, who had asked that the library bear the name of Ed James, who had died in mid-March 2018.
James was a lifelong advocate for civil rights in Sarasota. He also spent 46 years as producer and host of Black Almanac, a Sunday morning public affairs program on ABC7.
On Jan. 16, during the Open to the Public session of the commission meeting in downtown Sarasota, two other Newtown representatives proposed an alternative name: Betty J. Johnson.
First, Celestine B. Campbell stood at the podium, explaining that she has been president of the Friends of the North Sarasota Public Library for 15 years. She was on the Friends board, she pointed out, even before the facility opened in 2004.
As names were being considered for the library, while its planning was underway, she continued, more than 50 were put forth.
Campbell then referenced the request regarding James. She wanted to propose, she said, that the library be named for Johnson, who was the second African-American employed by the Sarasota County public library system, “where [Johnson] remained for 39 years …”
Johnson also originated the outreach program that included a daily bookmobile visit to the African-American community, Campbell noted. “That’s how the library came to the Newtown area.”
Further, Johnson established the first Friends of the Library program in Newtown, Campbell said. The North Sarasota Public Library, Campbell pointed out, became a reality “because of Betty J. Johnson’s commitment and work to provide library services in the northern Sarasota area.”
Campbell also noted that the library is not just for Newtown residents. Its service area, she said, runs to Interstate 75 and encompasses North Tamiami Trail.
“We look forward,” Campbell added, to seeing the North Sarasota Library bear the name of a person who “has done some very outstanding things.”
At the conclusion of Campbell’s remarks, Chair Charles Hines asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to ensure that Johnson’s name is included in deliberations of the name selection committee, whose work the board authorized on Nov. 27, 2018.
“Yes, sir. We’ll take care of it,” Lewis replied.
Whenever the issue comes again before the board, Campbell told the commissioners, “We would like to be here.”
Hines indicated staff would let her know.
A second speaker, Sheila Atkins — another member of the Friends of the North Sarasota Public Library — also voiced support for naming the facility for Johnson.
One of Johnson’s classmates, Atkins noted, liked to tell people, “‘When we were out having fun, Ms. Johnson was always home, reading books. Books were her life.’”
Atkins added that she took all three of her children — who range in age from 47 to 39 — to the bookmobile in Newtown when they were growing up.
Johnson, Atkins pointed out, “is a big proponent of the library system.”
Following Atkins’ remarks, Commissioner Detert said she wanted to provide some background. Last year, she continued, people visited with her at the county offices “about naming the library something better than North County Library, and I think what probably happened on the original naming is that the community did not coalesce behind one name.”
Detert added, “I don’t want to see that happen again.”
Detert continued, “I certainly supported those gentlemen [last fall] and the fact that we should have someone admirable from the Newtown community [for whom the library is named].”
Detert asked Campbell and Atkins to work with the group that had proposed Ed James’ name. “I just don’t want to see this fall apart.”
She also told the women, “We don’t want to have to pick which friend we like the best.”