In 1887, Eatonville, Fla., a community near Orlando, was among the first all-Black towns to incorporate — making it an outlier in the post-Reconstruction South. Its leaders went on to found the Robert L. Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, the first school for Black children in Central Florida, with the help of Booker T. Washington. The author Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, fictionalized her hometown in the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
While the school has closed, the town has evolved into a heritage-tourism destination, even as it remains a functioning community. Its population of roughly 2,500 is still majority Black, with small businesses, churches and historical markers lining its main traffic artery. Every January, thousands of people come from all over the world to attend the Zora! Festival, which celebrates the author, her hometown, and the cultural achievements of African Americans.
The Orange County School Board now owns the tract of land that was once the site of the school. In March, it was poised to sell 89 acres of this property, representing roughly 14 percent of the town’s landmass, to a developer. Some members of the town council initially supported the measure, on account of the revenue and economic development it would have brought, but the proposed sale also drew wide condemnation from other residents. N.Y. Nathiri, the director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, told me residents worried the housing development would have become a “town within a town,” where longtime Eatonville residents couldn’t have afforded to live. Over time, she predicted, it would have driven up property taxes and forced poorer residents out.
The developer has since backed out of the agreement, following a lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center helped file to stop the transaction, and a backlash that caught the attention of the media. But the future of the land tract — and by extension, the community — remains in question.
Eatonville is a microcosm of the conflicts that animate the preservation and extension of Black history and historical places. For a school board to consider such measures in Florida, of all places, comes as no surprise. Over the past year, the state’s political leaders have blocked an Advanced Placement course in African American studies, removed books from school libraries and rejected textbooks that teach “woke math.” In this case, the goal has been to bring in revenue to upgrade or build new schools and get the property back on the tax rolls, not to suppress Black history as an act of political theater — but the effect would be the same. However, this also speaks to a broader problem.
Eatonville is among the scores of towns and settlements throughout the United States that were established by formerly enslaved people during and after Reconstruction that remain intact — not as relics, but as places where people live and work, reflecting the legacy of their founders. Many of them are facing similar peril.
When towns like Eatonville must sell off pieces of the past to underwrite the present, we lose another piece of vital Black history. These places should be recognized as treasures — not only as rich communities unto themselves but also as living monuments, more valuable than any statue we could erect.