Photo:Eatonville curator Maye St. Julien says the town's slogan -- The Town That Freedom Built -- makes her "feel good all over."
'The town that freedom built'
The country's first incorporated African-American town needs more than a famous writer's legacy.
Before writer Zora Neale Hurston made the central Florida town of Eatonville famous, Joe Clarke, a freed slave from Alabama, made Eatonville a town.
Clarke arrived in Florida in the late 1800s, driven out of Tennessee by an active Klu Klux Klan and out of Georgia by ant infestations that plagued his efforts at farming. He settled near Maitland, about five miles north of what’s downtown Orlando today, and went to work managing orange groves for Josiah Eaton, a wealthy landowner and citrus industry entrepreneur.
After being told of Clarke’s dream to build a city just for freed slaves and other people of color, Eaton agreed to help. He put together a land deal and put Clarke in charge. African-Americans could buy lots in the town for as little as $35 — or $50 if they bought on credit. In 1887, with 27 African-American men voting, Eatonville became the first incorporated African-American city in the nation.
Seven years later, in 1894, Hurston’s family arrived from Alabama. She was 3 and grew up considering Eatonville as her hometown, even telling people in later years that she was born there. Her father, a preacher, was elected Eatonville’s mayor in 1897.In her 1928 essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston wrote about growing up in Eatonville.Parts of her best-known novel, 1937’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” unfold in Eatonville.
“One of her books, ‘Mules and Men,’ the characters are all Eatonville people,” says Eatonville native Maye St. Julien, the town’s curator and chair of the Eatonville Historic Preservation Board.“Most of the people in the book, I knew growing up.”
The influence of Hurston, who died in 1960 and is buried in Fort Pierce, continues in Eatonville, located just off I-4 between exits 88 and 90. The Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1990 and highlights the work of African-American artists. The annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities draws as many as 100,000 people to the town during its weeklong schedule of events.
St. Julien is glad for the attention that Hurston brings — she does volunteer work for both the festival and the museum — but she says the town has problems that Hurston’s legacy can’t solve.
The town’s main street, Kennedy Boulevard, underwent a $1.4-million streetscape redesign three years ago, complete with an arched entryway, but much of the town’s commercial district remains vacant. There’s a new Family Dollar store, but no supermarkets or markets where residents can consistently get fresh produce. The town’s crime rate is more than twice the national average.Four in 10 residents live below the federal poverty rate. Nearly 25% of the town’s 2,200 residents have diabetes, a rate three times the national average.
St. Julien says it’s “torture” for her to see so many of the town’s young people unemployed and not going to school. She wishes there was some way to harness the good will Eatonville generates during the Hurston festival — the next one is scheduled for Jan. 24-Feb. 1, 2015 — and use it to benefit the town during the rest of the year. She’s fine with Eatonville being famous for Hurston, for example, but she also wants Eatonville to be famous for being the first African-American municipality in the U.S.
“I hear our town’s slogan — ‘the town that freedom built’ — and it just makes me feel good all over,” St. Julien says. “It’s a feeling of pride. I don’t want that to get lost in Zora.”