A Florida town, once settled by former slaves, now fights over

“This is holy ground,” said NY Nathiri, a third-generation resident of Eatonville, Fla. “It’s special to us. It’s who we are. And we’re not going to let them take that away from us, no.”

Nitheri heads the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, a town founded by Clarke in 1887. Even this wind was remarkable. After the Civil War ended, former enslaved African Americans moved to central Florida to work. White property owners refused to sell him the land, until Clark convinced two white northerners who lived in the area, Lewis Lawrence and Josiah Eaton, to make available the plots that included Eatonville. It became one of the first black cities to exist.

Joe Clark (left) helped found the community of Eatonville, which incorporated in 1887 after blacks were allowed to buy plots of land in central Florida. Clark will become the mayor of Eatonville.

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“There was a lot of resistance from the surrounding communities,” said Everett Fly, a landscape architect, “because if they can incorporate, that means they can vote.” They may have their own law enforcement agency. They can run their own business. “

Fly has spent more than four decades researching Blacktowns. “By 1915, there were fewer than 60 black cities in the entire United States,” he said.

And how many of them are left? “I think there’s probably 20, 25 left,” Fly said. “More than 90% of it is about racism. It’s all about, ‘Oh, it’s not important,’ or ‘They won’t know the difference if we remove them or erase them, no one will do anything.’ will.’

Eatonville is struggling today. The average income is about $27,000 a year. Family Dollar is the only store. There is no supermarket, no gas station, no pharmacy.

What makes Eatonville different is perhaps the anthropologist and famous author Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up there. She was a great teller of the Eatonville story. “What we’re able to do here is take advantage of the genius of Zora Neale Hurston and the authenticity of Eatonville as a cultural and historical place,” Natheri said.

“Zora Tourism” already exists with the Zora Neale Hurston Museum. Zora! The festival (which Natheri’s preservation group puts on every year) regularly attracted more than 50,000 people before COVID. Less now.

But Eatonville would like to take advantage of 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 a lot more now. “As a small community of 2,500, it sits on the largest undeveloped parcel of land in Orange County. It sits in a very sweet position geographically,” Natheri said.

Natheri’s opinion is that Eatonville’s survival will depend on who wins the battle over the land, which is as closely tied to its past as its future. Trouble is, the city doesn’t own It is, and never is. 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 ran the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, a private boarding school founded in 1899 to provide vocational education to black students in the segregated South. was

Site of the Hungerford School, which served black students in the segregated South.

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In 1951, the Orange County School Board purchased Hungerford from the trust that owned it, for a little over $16,000. The school board received all 300 acres of land, but with one important restriction: the land still had to be used for the education of black children.

Vera King went to a black public school there. For 30 years, he worked at the high school that was built on the site. Now it is gone with even 200 of those 300 acres. “If we are not careful, Eatonville will disappear,” he said.

King, an 85-year-old Eatonville resident, resents how Orange County Public Schools began selling off parcel after parcel of Hungerford property, asking courts and trustees — repeatedly — to reduce the acreage requirement. of the. be used to educate black children, even though it is now … zero.

“They really benefited from it, from those sales,” King said.

The Orange County school system was paid about $8 million in those deals.

Julian Johnson, who is wearing a shirt with the #LandBack hashtag, isn’t the only Eatonville resident who thinks Orange County Public Schools should just give land to Eatonville as a form of compensation. He said that it is economic justice that we are fighting for. “The land is about economic justice. It’s about asking for it back. You’ve done people wrong time and time again.”

So, with those last hundred acres set to be sold to a developer on March 31 for $14 million (well below their last appraised value), Johnson helped spur the showdown. The only control over what Eatonville becomes 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. “Once the project is ready, it will offer shopping, dining, entertainment options for residents and visitors to dine and enjoy,” Derek Bruce, the developer’s attorney, told the council meeting.

The packed room didn’t see it that way.

“Quite simply, this development will wipe out this vibrant, thriving historic community,” NY Nathiri said.

Another speaker, Otis Mitchell, said, “For you all to come and put all this stuff up here and think we black people are going to be able to live here? Shame on yourselves.”

“The streets are talking, the people are talking, and the people are angry and angry,” Julian Johnson said.

And Lilly Shaw told council members, “We’re going to be outnumbered. I want you guys to vote no.”

They did.

But the developer can still buy the site and build, as long as it’s consistent with Eatonville’s vision for the town’s survival.

In a statement to “CBS Sunday Morning,” the Orange County Public School System reiterated its commitment to moving forward with the sale: “OCPS is moving forward with the sale honoring the agreement with the buyer,” they said. wrote No word yet from the developer.

For Eatonville residents, a lawsuit could be next.

The last stand in a losing battle? Not if they can help it.


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Story by Robin McFadden. Editor: Carol Ross.

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