It is known as the town that freedom built!
Just north of Orlando, Florida exists a town called Eatonville. Bordered by the predominantly white towns of Maitland and Winter Park, the rich history of the residential community has been a source of scholarly work over the years, The James Madison Institute reports. Made popular by novelists like Zora Neale Hurston, Eatonville represents the best of what Black people created in the years following the abolition of slavery. Towns like Eatonville ultimately served as a beacon of hope and an example of what could become when we focus on developing things that are for us and by us. Here’s everything you never learned about Eatonville, the first incorporated all-Black city in the United States:
The town was virtually uninhabited until the late 1870s.
Central Florida was virtually desolate up until after the Civil War when Republican legislation established Reconstruction efforts to help poor Black and white Southerners buy up unused public land at a cheap price. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped amplify this legislation to the newly freed slaves from places like Georgia and Alabama who began flocking to the then unincorporated Maitland, first settling in 1880, The Town of Eatonville reports.
Eatonville was named after Josiah Eaton, a local white landowner who helped acquire the land for Black settlers.
After clearing land, planting crops and helping to build homes and a railroad system, Black settlers in Maitland wanted to establish their own town. Spearheading those efforts was Joseph E. Clarke, a formerly enslaved man who had been unsuccessful in his attempt to purchase land due to the pervasiveness of racism at the time. Eventually, he connected with northern philanthropist Lewis Lawrence and local landowner Josiah Eaton, two white men who were willing to sell land in service of a Black township. Lawrence donated the first 10 acres along with a church, now known as the St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church. Another 12 acres were then deeded to Clarke.
Joseph E. Clarke and others helped to officially incorporate the town in August 1887.
Clarke would continue to acquire more land from the men, totaling 112 acres before Eatonville’s official incorporation on August 15, 1887. 27 electors gathered at that first “Town Hall” to agree on the name of the town and elect its first mayor, Columbus H. Boger, alderman and other town officers.
It became a model for self-governance and independence.
Central to Eatonville were the AME church, the Hungerford Normal and Industrial School and its residents. The school was run by Tuskegee Institute graduates, Mr. & Mrs. Russell C. Calhoun, and named in honor of Dr. Robert Hungerford, a white doctor who passed away caring for sick African-Americans in the town, BlackPast.org reports.
The town went on to establish several businesses and its own newspaper, advertising for other freed Black men to come settle in the self-governed town. They gave families the opportunity to farm their own lands and offered low prices, boasting “five and ten tracts [that could] be bought for five and ten dollars an acre… lots to actual settler (colored): [and] 44 x 100, [that could] be bought for thirty-five dollars [in] cash; and fifty on time.”
There was year-round work in the citrus groves of Eatonville. Despite other Black towns that regularly existed in the shadow of violence, Eatonville was created with Black people in mind, and they were allowed to flourish.
Eatonville was also the hometown of poet Zora Neale Hurston.
The town became popularized by literary icon Zora Neale Hurston, who mentioned Eatonville in her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s father, John Hurston, was a preacher and Eatonville Mayor in 1897. The novelist was born in Notasulga, Alabama, moving to Eatonville when she was just 3 years old. Hurston credited her time in Eatonville, surrounded by Black brilliance and primarily independent of white influence, with shaping her writing style. Today, the town has a museum named in Hurston’s honor and hosts an annual week-long Zora! festival remembering her rich life and legacy.
Eatonville today is designated as a national historic district and both the church and Hungerford school still stand, renamed the Wymore Career Education Center and given to Orange County in 1950. It is the first incorporated all-Black community in the United States and one of the few legally recognized Black municipalities created post Civil War that still exists.
Because of Eatonville, we can!
Here’s everything you never learned about Eatonville, the first incorporated all-Black city in the U.S./City Council members at Eatonville Jail, 1907/Photo Courtesy of New York Public Library