Florida town once settled by ex-slaves now fights for ‘sacred land’

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

Nathiri leads the association to preserve the community of Eatonville, a town founded in 1887 by Joe Clark. That this even happened was remarkable. After the Civil War ended, formerly enslaved African Americans flocked to central Florida for work. The white landowners 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.

Joe Clark (left) helped found the community of Eatonville, which was incorporated in 1887 after black people were allowed to buy tracts of land in central Florida. Clark would become the mayor of Eatonville. Picture file

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

Fly has spent more than four decades researching black cities. “In 1915 there were fewer than 60 incorporated black towns in the whole of the United States,” he said.

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And how many are left? “I think probably 20, 25 is all that’s left,” Fly said. “Over 90% of this is about racism. It’s all, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter’ or ‘They won’t see the difference if we eliminate them or erase them, no one will do anything.'”

Eatonville is in trouble today. The median income is around $27,000 per year. A Family Dollar is the only store. There is no supermarket, no gas station, no pharmacy.

What’s different about Eatonville is perhaps renowned anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up there. She was the great storyteller of Eatonville’s history. “What we have the ability to do here is tap into the genius of Zora Neale Hurston and the authenticity of Eatonville as a cultural and historic space,” Nathiri said.

“Zora tourism” already exists, with the Zora Neale Hurston Museum. The Zoras! The festival (which Nathiri’s preservation group organizes every year) regularly drew over 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, is certainly worth much more. NOW. Nathiri said, “As a small community of 2,500, it sits on the largest piece of undeveloped land in Orange County. It is geographically located in a very pleasant position.”

Nathiri’s opinion is that Eatonville’s survival will depend on who wins the fight for this land, which is as closely tied to its past as it is to its future. The problem is that the city does not own it and never has. It was once 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 training for black students in the segregated South.

The site of the Hungerford School, which served black students from the segregated South. CBS News

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

Vera King went to black public school there. For 30 years, she worked at the Lycée which was built on the site. Now he’s gone too, along with 200 of those 300 acres. “If we’re not careful, Eatonville will disappear,” she said.

King, an 85-year-old Eatonville native, resents what happened when Orange County Public Schools began selling off plot after plot of the Hungerford property, forcing courts and administrators — again and again – to reduce the number of acres needed to be used to educate black children, until it is now…zero.

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

The Orange County school system received nearly $8 million through these agreements.

Julian Johnson, who wears a shirt with the hashtag #LandBack, isn’t the only Eatonville resident who thinks Orange County Public Schools should just give the land to Eatonville as restitution. “It is economic justice that we are fighting for,” he said. “Land is economic justice. It’s about reclaiming it. You’ve wronged people over and over again.”

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 rally for a showdown. The only control Eatonville has over what gets built is through its zoning and planning. Last month, the city council met to vote on changes that would pave the way for a new “community” of more than 350 homes and apartments. Derek Bruce, a solicitor for the developer, told the council meeting: “Once the project is built, it will provide shopping, dining and entertainment options for residents and visitors to enjoy.”

The packed house didn’t see it that way.

NY Nathiri said, “Quite simply, this development will erase this vibrant and thriving historic community.

Another speaker, Otis Mitchell, said: “For you all to come and put all this here and think us black people are going to be able to stay here? Shame on yourself.”

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

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

They did it.

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

In a statement to “CBS Sunday Morning,” the Orange County Public School System reaffirmed its commitment to continue the sale: “OCPS is proceeding with the sale which honors the contract with the buyer,” they wrote. No word from the developer yet.

For Eatonville residents, a trial could be next.

A last stand in a lost war? Not if they can help him.

CBS News

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Story produced by Robyn McFadden. Publisher: Carol Ross.

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