Once An African-American Refuge, Economic Plight Threatens Future Of Florida Town
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New development in central Florida is threatening to swallow one of the country's oldest black towns - Eatonville. It's where Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston grew up. At the height of segregation, it was a place of refuge for blacks across Florida. Renata Sago, of member station WMFE, reports on Eatonville's struggle to keep its legacy.
RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: Zora Neale Hurston first described Eatonville as a city of five lakes, 300 brown skins, two schools and no jailhouse.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MULE ON THE MOUNT")
ZORA NEALE HURSTON: (Singing) Cap'n got a mule, mule on the mount...
SAGO: It was founded in 1887 by freed slaves and was one of the thriving black communities Hurston captured in poems and songs like this one called "Mule On The Mount."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MULE ON THE MOUNT")
HURSTON: (Singing) Cap'n got a mule, mule on the mount, call him Jerry.
SAGO: It had its own land, its own mayor and its own laws. Seventy-seven-year-old Maye Saint Julian remembers it as idyllic.
MAYE SAINT JULIAN: We didn't lock our doors and kids could go out and play. And everybody knew everybody. And all of these people that we honor so - James Brown, B.B. King, Lionel Hampton - these people came to Eatonville on a regular basis.
SAGO: Black families sent their kids to its private school, one of the few places in the South that issued diplomas to blacks. Orange pickers and ditch diggers came for peace from Jim Crow laws.
JULIAN CHAMBLISS: Eatonville is unique in the sense that it was able to incorporate itself as a official municipality.
SAGO: Historian Julian Chambliss says Eatonville was one of few successful attempts at black self-determination amid reconstruction and post-Civil War debates about the status of African-Americans. Hundreds of black towns had formed and many failed. Now only a handful remain.
CHAMBLISS: Naturally, African-Americans and other people of color are sort of looking to it and sort of, like, saying what is the state of Eatonville and what is the state of the dream that it represents?
SAGO: Today, a library, a few churches and a small museum devoted to Zora Neale Hurston line Eatonville's main street, with vacant lots sprinkled in. Longtime residents like Will Jones are nostalgic.
WILL JONES: Grocery store right there - big grocery store. See that white building right there? That was a service station - Mac Robinson's Service Station.
SAGO: In the past 50 years, the recession and a slow exodus have knocked the town of 2,200 into an economic coma. Home ownership is low and unemployment is more than double the national average. Orange County owned over half the property in the town 30 years ago. Today, that percentage is down, but Jones is worried the town's legacy of self-ownership is fading.
JONES: People says, are they selling Eatonville? No. What made you think they're selling Eatonville?
SAGO: The town council is working on rebuilding its tax base. That's amid a state investigation into the current mayor for voter fraud. Former Mayor Abraham Gordon says the town's vision is misguided.
ABRAHAM GORDON: They wanted to put a strip club in Eatonville; all that's foolishness. This town will be gone. You see a little plaque - there was Eatonville.
SAGO: Longtime residents dream of seeing Eatonville become a destination for heritage tourism. The town welcomes thousands of tourists once a year for its annual Zora Festival. But the slow pulse the rest of the year has outsiders asking whether Eatonville can even be resuscitated. Historian Julian Chambliss hesitates to answer that question.
CHAMBLISS: The people who are going to answer it with the greatest clarity are the people of Eatonville, and if they don't have an answer, I think you ought to be worried.
SAGO: For now, Eatonville's legacy will stay nestled in the pages of Hurston's literature and at the center of residents' minds as they battle to keep their town alive. For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.