Zora Neale Hurston’s Hometown in Florida Is in Peril
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.
Shortly after the Civil War, some of the survivors of the Clotilda, the last documented slave ship to reach the United States, established Africatown. Ms. Hurston spent time in the historic community three miles north of downtown Mobile, Ala., in the 1920s, doing research on what would become her posthumously published book “Barracoon.”
Over time, factories and refineries expanded along Africatown’s waterfront periphery, surrounding the central residential neighborhood, polluting the air and waterways. Residents believe the toxic emissions have contributed to a cancer epidemic. Then in the 1980s, the main business district was bulldozed to build a five-lane highway. Now that the wreckage of the Clotilda has been identified in the Mobile Delta, supporters have a meaningful chance of transforming the place into a destination for heritage tourism. But so far their efforts to have the industrial presence scaled down have not been successful.
The Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa — the former “Black Wall Street” and the site of the infamous 1921 race massacre — provides a third case study. Between the devastation that occurred then, and the urban renewal projects that followed, little of its historic architecture remains standing. It took the residents years to get Greenwood added to the National Register of Historic Places — a feat they only achieved last year. Still, the neighborhood remains fragile, and opportunities for economic development are relatively scarce.
Creating a national registry, as the scholar Andrea Roberts, who founded the Texas Freedom Colonies Project when she was teaching at Texas A&M University, has done regionally, would be a valuable first step toward preservation. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is in the early stages of planning a project along these lines that will also catalog historic buildings, cemeteries, and other artifacts.
In the meantime, scholars at the University of Texas at Arlington are also working on a “playbook” of strategies these communities can use, based on those deployed at historic Black districts in the Dallas area. These include recording the memories of longtime residents, to preserve neighborhood history; focusing on efforts to help residents keep their land; and instituting a vetting procedure for any outside groups that want to come in and help.
Ms. Roberts also suggested there could be a “blanket designation” for these communities, akin to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which says that anytime Native American remains are discovered, certain restrictions take hold regarding what can be done with the land. “You don’t have the equivalent for African Americans,” she pointed out.
While these large-scale measures would surely help, though, most of the work of preserving has been done at the grass-roots level. In the years since Eatonville was founded, for instance, residents have resisted forces that could have wiped their community out — including the state, when it tried to turn the main thoroughfare into a freeway, some 35 years ago. In this way, these towns are monuments not only to their founders, but also to succeeding generations that have engaged in similar struggles.
The success of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Ala. — not to mention Eatonville’s own ZORA! Festival — has proved that there’s an appetite for Black heritage tourism. With the right support and infrastructure, it’s easy to imagine these communities thriving for generations to come. But without it, they’ll be added to the casualties of history."