Eatonville, Florida is the oldest incorporated African-American town in the U.S. Established in 1887, it was named after Union Army Capt. Josiah Eaton, a white man who sold his land to the founders. (About 100 black communities were started after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. Only a dozen still survive.)
Eatonville might have become an obscure footnote in American history. But this place would later be the childhood home of Zora Neale Hurston, the most famous female writer of the Harlem Renaissance. Although Hurston left Eatonville in 1907 when she was 16, she returned to visit throughout her life. She once described it as “the city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.”
Flamboyant and charismatic, Zora was as controversial as she was brilliant. Her politics, writing style and lifestyle alienated many, whether she was in Harlem or the rural South. Her bold behavior was especially frowned upon in conservative Eatonville – she wore pants, smoked, did what she pleased, and said what she thought, without reservation or apology.
But that wasn’t all. Her writings often incorporated Eatonville’s features and folks, using their real names. When Zora helped create a Depression-era travel guide, she went beyond explaining the town’s proud history. She ushered strangers into private lives by writing “Off the road on the left is the brown-with-white-trim modern public school, with its well-kept yards and playgrounds, which Howard Miller always looks after, though he can scarcely read and write.” She also noted that resident Lee Glenn “sells drinks of all kinds and whatever goes with transient rooms.”
The notoriety deeply wounded the dignity and privacy of this close-knit community. Zora’s later writings sometimes caused similar injuries.
Sadly, when Hurston’s books went out of print in the late 1940’s, her good fortune also disappeared. She died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida. It appears few paused to note her passing, in Eatonville or elsewhere.
That could have been the end of Zora and Eatonville’s common story. But in the mid-1980’s, the traffic needs of adjacent Orlando threatened to destroy the town. County officials planned a new five lane highway running across tiny Eatonville, obliterating it. However, literature and lucky timing intervened. Ten years earlier, African-American novelist Alice Walker started crusading to revive interest in Zora Neale Hurston’s work.
Zora’s re-discovery, juxtaposed against the doomsday highway, spurred action. It’s as if the town suddenly realized it could no longer hoard its unique history. Sharing it would make others realize the devastating impact of the new road.
This community of 2,000 began hosting an annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities in 1990. Attendance grew rapidly, as did the group of people fighting to preserve the town. In response, the County abandoned the highway project. Eatonville entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
Eatonville’s wayward daughter, who had so often brought shame and unwelcome eyes to the community, was now its savior. Zora had come back home, this time for good.
If you enjoyed this story, read my posts about other interesting communities with unique histories.