A Florida town, once settled by former slaves, now fights over “sacred land”
“This is sacred land,” said N.Y. Nathiri, a third-generation resident of Eatonville, Fla. “It’s special for us. It’s who we are. And we’re not going to let them take it away from us, no.”
Nathiri heads the association to preserve the Eatonville community, a town founded in 1887 by Joe Clark. That it even happened was remarkable. After the end of the Civil War, formerly enslaved African Americans flocked to central Florida to work. White property owners refused to sell them land, until Clark convinced two White Northerners with homes in the area, Lewis Lawrence and Josiah Eaton, to make available plots they could buy in what became Eatonville, one of the first Black towns to incorporate.
“There was a lot of resistance from the surrounding communities,” said Everett Fly, a landscape architect, “because if they could incorporate, that meant that they could vote. They could have their own law enforcement. They could manage their own business.”
Fly has spent more than four decades researching Black towns. “By 1915, there were less than 60 incorporated Black towns in the entire United States,” he said.
And how many of those are left? “I think probably 20, 25 is all that’s left,” said Fly. “More than 90% of it is about racism. It’s everything from, ‘Oh, it’s not important,’ or ‘They won’t know the difference if we move them out or erase them, no one’s gonna do anything.'”
Eatonville today is struggling. The median income is around $27,000 a year. A Family Dollar is the only store. There’s no supermarket, no gas station, no pharmacy.
What’s different about Eatonville is perhaps the anthropologist and noted writer Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up there. She was the great teller of Eatonville’s story. “What we have the ability to do here is to leverage the genius of Zora Neale Hurston and the authenticity of Eatonville as a cultural and historical space,” said Nathiri.
“Zora tourism” exists already, with the Zora Neale Hurston Museum. The Zora! Festival (which Nathiri’s preservation group puts on every year) regularly attracted over 50,000 people before COVID. Fewer now.
But Eatonville would like to leverage something else: 100 acres of land, ten minutes from downtown Orlando, half an hour from Disney World, valued at more than $20 million in 2019, certainly worth much more now. Nathiri said, “As a small community of 2,500, it’s sitting on the largest undeveloped parcel of land in Orange County. It’s sitting in a very sweet position geographically.”
Nathiri’s opinion is that Eatonville’s survival will depend on who wins the fight over this land, which is as closely tied to its past as it is to its future. The trouble is, the town doesn’t own it, and never has. Once, it was part of a 300-acre campus that occupied about 40% of Eatonville. The land was donated by philanthropists to a trust, which operated the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, a private boarding school established in 1899 to provide vocational education to Black students in the segregated South.
In 1951, the Orange County School Board bought Hungerford from the trust that owned it, for a little over $16,000. The school board got all 300 acres, but with an important restriction: the land still had to be used for the education of Black children.
Vera King went to the Black public school there. For 30 years, she worked at the High School that was built on the site. Now it’s gone, too, along with 200 of those 300 acres. “If we aren’t careful, Eatonville is going to be extinct,” she said.
King, an 85-year-old Eatonville native, resents what happened when the Orange County Public Schools started selling off parcel after parcel of the Hungerford property, getting the courts and the trustees – again and again – to cut the number of acres required to be used for educating Black kids, until it it’s now … zero.
“They really profited from it, from those sales,” said King.
The Orange County School System was paid nearly $8 million in those deals.
Julian Johnson, who wears a shirt bearing the hashtag #LandBack, is not the only Eatonville resident who thinks the Orange County Public Schools ought to just give the land to Eatonville as a kind of restitution. “This is economic justice that we’re fighting for,” he said. “Land is economic justice. It’s about demanding it back. You’ve done the people wrong, over and over.”
So, with those last hundred acres set to be sold on March 31 to a developer for $14 million (well below their last appraised value), Johnson helped to mobilize for a showdown. The only control Eatonville has over what gets built is through its zoning and planning. Last month, the town council met to vote on changes that would clear the way for a new “community” of more than 350 homes and apartments. Derek Bruce, an attorney for the developer, told the council meeting, “Once the project is built out, it’ll offer shopping, dining, entertainment options for residents and visitors to partake and enjoy.”
The packed room didn’t see it that way.
N.Y. Nathiri said, “Quite simply, this development will erase this living, thriving historical community.”
Another speaker, Otis Mitchell, said, “For y’all to come and put all this stuff up here and think we as Black people going to be able to stay here? Shame on yourself.”
Julian Johnson stated, “The streets are talking, the people are talking, and the people are angry and furious.”
And Lilly Shaw told the council members, “We’re gonna be outnumbered. I want you guys to vote no.”
But the developer can still buy the site and build, so long as it’s something consistent with Eatonville’s vision for the town’s survival.
In a statement to “CBS Sunday Morning,” the Orange County Public School System reaffirmed its commitment to go ahead with the sale: “OCPS is proceeding with the sale that honors the contract with the purchaser,” they wrote. No word yet from the developer.
For Eatonville residents, a lawsuit may be next.
A last stand in a losing war? Not if they can help it.
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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Carol Ross.