Less than 3-hours north of West Palm Beach — approximately 6 miles north of Orlando — sits the town of Eatonville. Settled in 1880 by newly freed slaves, Eatonville was incorporated in 1887 and was the first town to be organized, governed and incorporated by African-American citizens in the United States. “Of the more than one hundred black towns founded between 1865 and 1900, fewer than twelve remain today.”
Considered home to American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, the Eatonville visited by my cousin and I bears no resemblance to the one Hurston grew up in. Our trip along Kennedy Boulevard took us to the the St. Lawrence AME Church, founded in 1881 and the first African-American church in the area. Its present location was erected in the early 1970s and sits almost directly across from Gordon’s Be Back Fish House. Also along Kennedy, you’ll find the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts.
Born January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama to John and Lucy Ann Hurston, Hurston’s home in Eatonville “most likely fell in the block bounded by present-day Lemon, People, Lime and West Streets.” She’d attended Robert Hungerford Normal & Industrial School, considered one of the best south black schools at the time.
“Lake Belle is home to Eatonville’s most celebrated resident, the world’s largest alligator,” Hurston observed.
“The city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse”, as Hurston described it, is now a place of pilgrimage. Specifically, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Ruby Dee have come to the annual Zora! Festival in Eatonville to pay their respects to Hurston, the most famous female writer of the Harlem Renaissance, writes The New York Times.
She writes in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, about the life on the porches of Eatonville: “There was open kindness, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at. You got what your strengths would bring you.”
Of life in 1920’s-30’s Eatonville, residents remark: “The people shared and cared. One person had maybe a cow. They’d milk the cow and send the neighbors milk and butter.”
“They’d have chicken, fish, beef, pork, pigs feet, chitterlings, potatoes, tomatoes, okra, peas, cause they grew most of their own vegetables. Somebody grew pigs, had cows and milk. They shared.”
— Clara Williams, resident
“Everybody out here planted gardens, and they grew chickens. They could eat chickens whenever they wanted and they fished.
— Hoyt Davis, resident
“She would come and go like a free spirit, appearing and disappearing with little notice,” residents would say. When in town, she’d stay with friends like Armetta Jones and Matilda Moseley.
“To many, Hurston is known primarily for her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance. During this time she befriended Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Wallace Thurman, and others, cooking them fried shrimp in her apartment, often a site for impromptu parties. But she quickly moved on. She was not a joiner of movements or trends. Like her hometown, Hurston was iconoclastic”, writes the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Eatonville celebrated its centennial on August 18, 1987 and joined the national historic registry in 1998. A new one-story library — named after Hurston — opened in 2006 on a repaved and beautified Kennedy Boulevard.
Before heading back home, our trip took us to Wells’ Built Museum of African American History and ended with dinner at iPho 2 Noodlehouse in Maitland, accessible from Kennedy Boulevard which turns into Lake Avenue.
- Eatonville seeks to sell Hungerford School property (wpmobserver.com)
- Historic Eatonville struggles to break through small-town pressures (orlandosentinel.com)
- 10 Facts About Eatonville (wesh.com)
- Eatonville: Deeply Rooted in African-American History (eatonvillefl.wordpress.com)
- Images of Florida’s Black History (floridamemory.com)
- Florida Black Heritage Trail (myflorida.com)