The History and Legacy of Eatonville, Florida’s Pioneering African-American Town
By James Padgett, a graduate student in the history department, concentration in agriculture, environment, and geography, The University of Central Florida, and,
Scott Sholl, Editor of Florida Verve and Historian in Residence, The James Madison Institute
Appearances can be deceiving. Tucked away seven miles north of downtown Orlando, Eatonville may not seem that special in first impressions, but here lies a community possessing great historical significance, a legacy of racial progress and ultimate success.
Eatonville, Florida, is the oldest black-incorporated municipality in the United States. Incorporated in 1887, it is the first town successfully established by African American freedmen. The founding of this town stands as an enormous achievement for once-enslaved black men and women throughout the United States. Having to live life being considered inferior to the white majority, African Americans finally found some autonomy and freedom for themselves in Eatonville.
Eatonville also has immensely strong literary roots. Zora Neale Hurston, the internationally-acclaimed anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist who is best known for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, lived in Eatonville as a child and considered the locale her hometown. An important influence on Hurston’s works and writings, Eatonville is an unassuming town in appearance but has a remarkably rich history. Indeed, perseverance and gratitude for independence are key characteristics evident in the history of this little community in Central Florida.
Present-day Eatonville is a meld of modern society and Old Florida. Geographically speaking, the town limits are bordered to the north and east by Maitland and to the south by Winter Park, both mostly white in population. Eatonville lies between two lakes; to the north is Lake Sabelia and to the south is Lake Bell. The town is now mainly a residential community, but it also has a small number of businesses such as barbershops, restaurants, and a Family Dollar store. Churches, government offices, and school buildings line its main traffic artery, Kennedy Boulevard. When traveling east or west down this thoroughfare, drivers see brick-lined intersections, planted palm trees, and modern-style municipal buildings mingling with Eatonville’s century-old wood-framed homes.
Over 100 years ago, Eatonville looked much different as befit its location on what was then a sparsely unsettled frontier. Stands of pine and palmetto scrub separated the town site from the lakes’ shores. The land was still covered in thickets of dense woods, with rattlesnakes and possums outnumbering the area’s settlers. Throughout the mid-19th century, Central Florida itself was largely wilderness, uninhabited, and undeveloped until after the Civil War.
In the years following the war, black settlements began organizing throughout the United States. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which officially took effect on January 1, 1863, was followed by the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments in 1865, 1868, and 1870 respectively. This inspired newly-freed African Americans to create their own municipal corporations. Between 1865 and 1900, there were approximately 400 black towns, settlements, and enclaves. However, fewer than 150 became legally-recognized municipalities.
Municipal organization was not easy for African Americans. They lacked many of the necessary funds and materials to build a town from the ground up. The scarcity of building supplies, food, and tools hindered the free blacks’ ability to create their own separate communities. Most noticeably, racial prejudice was very engrained in American society, so assistance from white neighbors did not come often for black communities. Southern states tried to legally resist former slaves’ attempts to exercise newly-acquired freedoms. Indeed, immediately after the Civil War and especially after the end of Reconstruction, laws called “black codes” were passed throughout the South to drastically limit freedmen’s rights.
The Republican-led federal government retaliated against such activity with stringent legislation. The most famous Reconstruction effort, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, (a.k.a. the “Freedmen’s Bureau”) was established in the War Department by Act of Congress on March 3, 1865. The bureau influenced freedmen to take advantage of the 1866 Southern Homestead act, a law that allowed public land to be sold cheaply to poor whites and blacks. This act was an attempt to break the cycles of debt (sharecropping, land tenancy) that stopped poor southerners from buying the plentiful public lands in the South, particularly in Florida.
By the 1870s, Central Florida became the scene of feverish land purchases and settlement activity. But for African Americans, acquiring land became tougher. The Freedmen’s Bureau dissolved in 1869 and the federal army discontinued enforcement of elections. Former Confederates began to have their civil rights restored, retaking control of their local governments and police forces. Even before Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, blacks were already disillusioned by the federal government’s failure to protect their rights as citizens. But freedmen and their families were persistent and eventually succeeded in forming a town of their own in Central Florida.
During the land frenzy, newly-freed slaves from throughout the south drifted into Central Florida. Some settled around Lake Lily, then called St. John’s Hole, and worked for northerners who had built winter homes on the north shore of nearby Lake Maitland. Known then as Fort Maitland, this community of white northerners employed the freedmen and their families with clearing land, planting citrus groves, and helping build infrastructure, including a railroad connecting Fort Maitland to Jacksonville. These freedmen built homes west of Lake Maitland and were instrumental through their work in contributing to Lake Maitland’s incorporation in 1884.
However, black settlers still desired to establish and incorporate a town of their own. From 1875 to 1877, the first attempts by black settlers to buy land were hindered by the unwillingness of white landowners to sell acreage to black folks. In 1882, two white men, Josiah Eaton and Lewis Lawrence, finally offered to sell black men a large tract of land one mile west of Lake Maitland. In 1881, out of a 160-acre tract that Eaton had bought in 1875, some 22 acres were sold to Lawrence, a philanthropist from New York. In the first land purchases strictly meant to establish a black township, Lawrence had the north ten acres platted, and he donated the property to the trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as the St. Lawrence AME Church in his honor. On November 18, 1885, the south 12 acres were deeded to Joseph E. Clarke, the founding father and second mayor of Eatonville.
Clarke managed to buy additional property from Eaton’s tract so that, by the time of incorporation, Eatonville’s original city limit encompassed 112 acres. Clarke and fellow charter member Allen Ricket had initially been unsuccessful after the Civil War in founding a freedmen’s settlement in other parts of Florida. Ricket and a resident named Tony Taylor would be the first people to live in what would become Eatonville. In August 1887, 27 African American men unanimously voted for the Town of Eatonville in Orange County, Florida, to incorporate, officially establishing the oldest all-black town in the United States.
The significance of Eatonville’s incorporation would be proudly advertised by its citizens. In an 1889 article on the front page of The Eatonville Speaker, the headline read “Colored people of the United States: solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by Negroes.” Eatonville was sold as an operational and affordable all-black utopia, a working alternative for freedmen living in more oppressive communities throughout the South. It was promoted as, “… an incorporated city of two and three hundred population with a Mayor, Board of Aldermen, and all the necessary adjuncts of a full-fledged city, [with] not a white family in the whole city!”
Described as “where wildlife abounds” and where “the slightest frosts are almost unknown,” this article advertised Eatonville’s low land prices and how freedmen could acquire them: “five and ten tracts can be bought for five and ten dollars an acre… lots to actual settler (colored): 44 x 100, can be bought for thirty-five dollars [in] cash; and fifty on time.” Early developers like Mayor Clarke, who would eventually become postmaster and a general store owner in Eatonville, encouraged blacks around the state to move into the town. Buyers usually bought more than one lot to subsistence farm, giving freedmen the ability to own and farm their own private land. More newspaper advertisements and word of mouth spread this news to black families throughout the South.
Townspeople built one-story wood frame houses with two or three rooms on their lots. They set aside land for non-residential uses like churches, municipal buildings, clubhouses, and cemeteries. Residents regularly visited nearby lakes for fishing, boating, and picnicking. Families also utilized the lakes’ waters to cook, bathe, and irrigate crops. Men found year-round employment with the numerous citrus groves surrounding Eatonville, working as pickers, pruners, and in packinghouses. Some worked on building new railroad lines throughout the region. Others started their own businesses and made a living in Eatonville itself, becoming storekeepers, builders, cobblers, and other enterprisers. Women were cooks and maids for nearby towns, and they also worked in nearby citrus groves and tended family vegetable gardens.
Eatonville also became home to the area’s best school for black children, the Robert Hungerford Industrial School. Russell and Mary Calhoun, two students of the Tuskegee Institute, formed a school in 1899. More land was donated to the school by Connecticut-native E.C. Hungerford, resulting in the school being named in memory of his son, a doctor who died while treating sick black children in Louisiana. With the goal of teaching vocational skills to boys and girls, the school also helped students tend crops, raise poultry, prepare their own meals, and learn trades for income. Classrooms and dormitories sat near the workshops, barns, and garden plots that were created to teach self-sufficiency to Eatonville’s children. When the Hungerford School was incorporated into Eatonville, it covered 340 acres and made up 62% of the town, a dominant institution physically, culturally, and educationally.
By the early 20th Century, Eatonville had become what was originally envisioned, a community that gave African Americans the chance to live as they desired and independent of white society. Self-governance and independence were finally attained by the black citizens of Eatonville, making the town an inspiration for African Americans nationwide to create their own self-sustaining living spaces. Indeed, this notion of self-determination is very evident in the writings of Eatonville’s favorite daughter, Zora Neale Hurston.
Eatonville is historically remarkable. It is proud of its place as the nation’s oldest incorporated all-black community and as the hometown of an American literary legend. Today, folks can visit the Zora Neale Hurston Museum or the library named in her honor. Thousands come to Eatonville every year for the week-long arts and humanities festival known as the Zora! Festival, now 28 years strong. Eatonville itself is a national historic district, preserving the town from overdevelopment as the greater Orlando metropolis swallows its surrounding communities. Despite the suburban sprawl, Eatonville continues to preserve its rich cultural heritage that makes it a vital part of African-American history and Florida.