Eatonville: “The town that freedom built,” a history of America’s first incorporated Black town

Every year before the pandemic, thousands of people would pack into the town of Eatonville to celebrate author Zora Neale Hurston; but outside of that, many people don’t know the impact this small Florida town had on America.

As you drive down Interstate 4 between Maitland and Winter Park, you reach “The town that freedom built,” otherwise known as Eatonville.

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“If you think about what has happened over time, the fact that Eatonville still exists is itself noteworthy,” said N.Y. Nathiri of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. “If you think about what was happening in the South in the 1880s, you have the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. You really have people who were recently freed from enslavement trying to find their way in how to live as citizens of the United States.”

During Reconstruction, all Black communities, or race colonies, started popping up in the South. Free Black people cleared land, planted groves and helped build Maitland.

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However, they wanted something of their own, and in 1887 Eatonville became the first Black town to be officially incorporated in the United States of America.

“The town was founded as a Black haven,” said Nathiri.

They wanted everyone to know about it.  On the front page of an 1889 edition of the “Eatonville Speaker,” the author tried to recruit other Black families, stating, “Colored people of the United States, solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a negro city governed by negros.”

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The article detailed how in the 1870s, Black men tried to buy parcels of land near Maitland, but “so great was the prejudice then existing against the negro that no one would sell them the land for such a purpose.”

In the 1880s two white men, Josiah Eaton and Lewis Lawrence, who lived in Maitland bought some of the land with the goal of selling it at reasonable prices to Black men. Lawrence built and donated a church to the community before it was even a town. St. Lawrence A.M.E. was rebuilt and is still used today.

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“People in Eatonville helped to incorporate the city of Maitland. They were important in the founding of the city,” Nathiri said. “So that kind of animosity that did exist and that destroyed Rosewood that animosity that drove the Black people out of Ocoee did not exist in terms of the relationship with Maitland and Eatonville.”

Channel 9 spoke to Louse Franklin, whose family has owned property here for almost 100 years, regarding the imaginary line separating Eatonville from her home in Maitland. However, Franklin can remember when that line wasn’t so imaginary.

“Those of us who lived in the Maitland area, which was very few, had to go to school in Eatonville, churches in Eatonville,” Franklin said.

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Franklin, like other Black children went to the Hungerford School, one of the best schools for vocational training, offering STEM-like programs. Today, what was one a sprawling campus is practically empty.

Before the pandemic put big events on hold, the grounds would come alive to celebrate the city’s most famous former resident, author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. “Because of her, the culture of Eatonville, the people who lived in Eatonville represented the foundation of the American south in terms of the folklore in terms of the stories,” Nathiri said.

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Hurston rose to fame during the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote about Eatonville throughout her life and in her most famous novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

“That’s an honor, we’re proud of that,” Franklin said.

Deneige Broom, WFTV.com

Deneige Broom is back at Channel 9 for her second tour of duty. You may remember when the Seminole County native hit the streets as a reporter for Eyewitness News from 2013-2017. Now, she's back helping drivers navigate those streets as Traffic Anchor every morning.