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Heritage and History in Eatonville, Florida: A Historic Preservation Model for Twenty-First-Century America 

12-09-2015 17:35

The historic Eatonville community is a community known round the world because of the magnificent prose of twentieth-century writer/folklorist/anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. It was she who introduced her readers to the rich African-American culture of the Eatonville community; she, who is acknowledged as having single-handedly preserved the rural, southern, African American heritage for future generations.

It was in Eatonville, in 1887, that twenty-seven men of African descent decided to incorporate their community, to take the steps necessary to become a recognized legal entity within the state of Florida. Thus it was that Joe Clark, Lawrence Brazzel, Charles Boyer, and twenty-four of their neighbors made history, for they were the first African-Americans to incorporate a municipality, the first African Americans to attempt organized, self-government in the United States. And now, some 105 years later, the Eatonville community remains an independent African American municipality with a mayor, a council, police, fire, and sewer all under the governance of African-Americans, just as it began in 1887. But, you may ask, of what historic significance is the establishment of the Eatonville community? Is this just another one of those "weird firsts" that some ethnic groups try to boast of?

Let`s go back to the post-Civil War South. You will recall that in 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South, thus ending the protection that newly enfranchised black Americans enjoyed. With federal force absent, antiblack tyranny flourished. Southern legislatures enacted a series of laws, called black codes, designed to reenslave blacks; illiterate or unprotected black heirs lost their land to unscrupulous whites; Night Riders and the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a reign of terror.

In this environment a number of thoughtful blacks throughout the South, Southwest, and West believed that the only way their people could truly realize full enfranchisement and protection under the law was to establish their own communities and become self-governing. Thus we have in America`s history the systematic establishment of some sixty-odd towns. Some names you may have heard--Mt. Bayou, Mississippi; Boley, Oklahoma; Nicodemus, Kansas; Princeville, North Carolina; Allensworth, California. And, of course, Eatonville, Florida. Today, barely a half a dozen of these historic black towns remain viable, and Eatonville is one of the few actively and aggressively seeking to preserve its heritage, to preserve its place in America`s history.

In 1987 Eatonville was on the drawing board for destruction--a community of 2,800 characterized by demographers as a poor socioeconomic community occupying undeveloped real estate, located ten miles northeast of downtown Orlando, situated between affluent Winter Park and developed Altamonte Springs. Ninety days after the community had celebrated its centennial and just three days before Thanksgiving, the Orange County Commission voted unanimously to five-lane Kennedy Boulevard, the two-lane highway that runs through the heart of the community. In order for development to take place, the historic Eatonville community would have to disappear. The powers expected Eatonville to say, "When you want us gone, Boss?"

But that was not the response of the community. We organized around rallying cries, "Preserve the Eatonville community!" "Support opposition to the five-laning of Kennedy!"

Our friends from around the state and nation were astonished that Eatonville was not already listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Although I had come late to the rescue effort of my hometown, I immediately began to follow the leads and advice we were receiving. I didn`t meet Susan Kidd, the director of the National Trust`s southern regional office, until January of last year but, believe me, I learned who she was, spoke to staff in her office in Charleston, South Carolina, consulted with staff about the transportation expertise available in the Trust`s Washington office, and much more.

As it has turned out, during this first phase of our struggle the organized historic preservation movement has not been of much assistance to what we`re doing in Eatonville. I`m sad to say this, but the reality is that whereas we view Eatonville as a national treasure that represents a precious aspect of our country`s social and cultural history--because we don`t have many old buildings still standing in Eatonville--evidently Eatonville is not considered by some to be a preservation priority. I have to admit this assessment has been a hard pill to swallow.

Although I believe that there is yet much work to be done in addressing the needs of our diverse roots, we do have an opportunity that must not be squandered. Historic preservation has a very important role to play in the future of our country. The reality is this: We are now a society composed of people from many ethnic backgrounds, histories, and cultures. When I was a child, we spoke in terms of "black and white." Over the course of my schooling, both in the South and in the North, the children I encountered represented only one tradition: the Judeo-Christian tradition. Today in the schools of Orange County, Florida, where my children are enrolled, teachers encounter students representing more than 100 foreign languages. It is my opinion that one of the greatest challenges facing our nation is the ability to maintain a unified and cohesive society, one wherein allegiance to and love of country assure societal harmony.

The historic preservation field can be a force working to build that cohesiveness. Let me use the Eatonville example to illustrate. For us, historic preservation is the tool by which we will ensure that (1) Eatonville survives as long as the country survives and (2) that we preserve for future generations the culture that the historic Eatonville community represents. Our short-term goals are: (1) to enhance the quality of the natural, physical, cultural environment in Eatonville; (2) to educate the public about the historic, cultural, architectural, and scenic preservation and resources; and (3) to seek the designation of Eatonville as a historic area. Our long-term goals are to develop Eatonville into a center for the popular study of African-American life and culture, specifically providing for the young programs that (a) enhance their self-esteem, (b) instill self-discipline, and (c) allow them to experience success.

For us in Eatonville historic preservation is activist-driven. Historic preservation is an energizing force for continuity; we move confidently into the future because we are actively holding on to our African-American heritage. Yes, we come from the specific context of the African-American heritage; but our work transcends race and culture. We have members and friends from all over the world. The argument I am advancing is this: The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (PEC), is a model for the historic preservation field in the United States as we move into the twenty-first century. Contained within our community and organization are the challenges with which the field continues to grapple: (1) how to better involve diverse populations in historic preservation work; (2) how national historic preservation standards and criteria can be applied to local, grass-roots historic preservation efforts; (3) how ethnically related organizations can find their place within the spectrum of established historic preservation organizations; and (4) how historic preservation can participate in the reform of education, the advancement of economic development, the progress toward achieving social justice.

Let`s look at these issues one by one. How can historic preservation become more ethnically inclusive? When people honestly research, explore, and excavate their history, that activity broadens them because none of us lives in isolation. Most of the citizens of Maitland--the affluent, white community that is located just to the east of Eatonville, and from which Eatonville is carved don`t know that their city`s first mayor and chief law-enforcement officer were African-Americans, elected by the voters back in the 1880s. Now the people at the Maitland Historical Society know, as does anyone who has read Zora Neale Hurston`s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Similarly, our people in Eatonville are gaining a better understanding of how our community has fit into the broader history of Orange County, Florida, as well as that of the nation. Historic preservation is no longer just a phrase for us; we have become members of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation; we sometimes make trips to Tallahassee when preservation activities are planned. We have become involved because we see we have a stake in this endeavor.

The second issue--how national standards can be applied to local preservation efforts--is still an open question for us in Eatonville. Over the years we`ve been told different things by different colleagues. We`ve been assured, for example, that the historic survey we`ve completed, along with our history of being one of the early black towns established that is still viable, should qualify the historic core of the town for district status in the National Register. Others, closer to home, are not so encouraging. It seems to us in Eatonville that we should be eligible for a listing in the National Register of Historic Places under either National Register Criterion A, ". . . [properties that] are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad pattern of our history," or under National Register Criterion B ". . . [properties that] are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past." Given this diversity of opinion, it seems the only good news for us, at this point, is that our situation is ripe for interpretation.

The third issue--how an ethnically related organization can find its niche within the spectrum of an established historic preservation organization--points up that our work in Eatonville is analogous to the work of the specialist in academia or medicine. In our neck of the woods we have the Orange County Historical Museum. Its mission is, in part, to serve as the steward of historic preservation in the county. Eatonville is part of Orange County, but we are specialists. Our work transcends the boundaries of the county. Sara Van Arsdale, the executive director of the museum, and I are colleagues; she is supportive of me, and I of her. Our organizations have too much work to do to squabble over turf. We in Eatonville don`t have the knowledge or resources to handle broad county heritage; Van Arsdale and the county don`t have the knowledge or resources to do justice to the heritage of the Eatonville community.

And lastly, we are exploring how the historic preservation field can positively contribute to our nation`s quality of life-- educationally, economically, and socially. Here, again, I believe the work that we are doing in Eatonville can be instructive. For us, it is axiomatic that people understand why Eatonville is historically significant; it is crucial that they recognize the importance of the primary research that Zora Neale Hurston did, not because of some parochial considerations concerning Eatonville, but because her work addressed the heritage of the rural, southern, African-descended American and represents a major body of work on cultural heritage.

Pride in heritage, educational excellence, cultural arts-- these are the quality-of-life issues that impact all of us, no matter our origins or life`s path. To the extent that we know who we are and we are secure in that knowledge, to the degree that we involve ourselves in lifelong learning experiences that continue to help us to grow and to develop, to the level that our spirits are able to soar in glory of the beauty created for us, this is the measure of our existence.

Publication Date: January/February 1993


Author(s):N.Y. Nathiri