Before George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin became household names Sanford was known for its downtown art galleries and the Willow Tree Cafe, a memorable German restaurant selling beer by the boot and authentic, even imported, German cuisine.
At an art gallery downtown, green button pins that read “Sanford Proud” are sold for $5 each, created just as George Zimmerman’s murder trial was beginning. The money goes to Celery Soup, a local group that produces plays recounting Sanford’s history; named after the city’s legacy as the nation’s former top celery producer.
Special section: George Zimmerman trial
Once a month, historic downtown Sanford hosts a street festival called “Alive after 5.” Street food vendors and white tents with merchants selling their wares line the cobblestone walkways as live music fills the air.
These are the things locals tell me they wish the rest of the world knew about their city.
“Sanford’s a good town. I grew here. There are antique shops and nice things to do,” Rosie Letour told me as she relaxed at an outdoor patio table of a local bar with her adult daughter and friends, “and it's getting a bad wrap from all of this.”
Walking down a side street near a live band belting “Getting on the midnight train to Georgia,” I run into Donte Howell, a young African-American man.
“I mean, it’s a nice, small town, not much goes on here. It’s pretty, should I say, boring. Everybody coming from everywhere else to talk about it but the actual people who live here don't talk to much about it.”
The “it” Howell referenced is the high profile trial of George Zimmerman unfolding five miles away at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center.
What the defense says was justified the state calls murder.
A jury of six women are deciding whether George Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder, manslaughter or acted in self-defense and is not guilty for the shooting death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012.
In the weeks following the shooting, the call for Zimmerman’s arrest led to large public protests in their quiet central Florida city.
“They like to say that Sanford is a racist town and I grew up here and racism isn’t just for white people, black people can be racist, too,” said Letour. “When Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson came here I think they fueled a lot of that. They got everybody riled up.”
Howell sees it differently. At the time, he too was angry.
“I mean, he was an unarmed kid, unarmed and there was facts that said he was told to leave him alone and why he's shooting at him then?” he said.
While the protests were peaceful, people in the area worry about a change in tone come verdict.
“I can see mayhem,” said Howell.
“I think that the outcome of the trial, if things don't go a certain way, there's going to be problems,” said Letour. “I think there will be riots.”
But Sanford Pastor Lowman Oliver disagreed.
“We hear this riot talk," he said. "There has never been, in the history of this city, nor if there was a movement under the direction of the NAACP or any other larger group, a protest in a violent manner. This is always done in a peaceful manner and this is the message that we send and our churches should be in leadership of that because we are not about violence we are about being the examples of how our god desire for us to live together in harmony and peace. There are some things all can be angry about, there should be anger against racism but that anger should drive us to do things in love to resolve that not in violence. You don't sin against sin, makes it worse.”
“There is concern about the outcome of the trial, particularly what will happen with the verdict,” Sanford’s City Manager Norton Bonaparte told me in early June during the first week of jury selection. “It’s very likely there will be people who will not like the verdict no matter what the verdict is, but I think people in general are looking forward to seeing that justice is done, and then moving forward.”