The Town that Freedom Built: The story of Eatonville, America’s first official black town

EATONVILLE, Fla. — In 1887, during reconstruction, Eatonville, FL became the first official municipality in America that had been established by freed African-Americans.

N.Y. Nathiri is the President of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. She says the fact that Eatonville even still exists is itself noteworthy.

“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.”

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All-black communities, or race colonies, sprung up throughout the south as freed slaves cleared land and planted groves, helping to build what would eventually become the town of Maitland.

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

“The town was founded as a black haven,” Nathiri says.

And they wanted everyone to know about it. On the front page of an 1888 edition of the “Eatonville Speaker,” the author tried to recruit other black families, saying “Colored people of the United States! Solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a negro city goverened by negroes.”

The article detailed how in the 1870s, black men tried to buy parcels near Maitland, but “ 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 who lived in Maitland- Josiah Eaton, and Lewis Lawrence- 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 even before it was a town. St. Lawrence A.M.E. was rebuilt and is still used today, with a history older than the town itself.

Eaton’s name lives on with the town in the most obvious fashion.

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

Instead, Eatonville was allowed to flourish.

“This was the only place for blacks for entertainment,” Maitland resident Louise Franklin recalls.

For almost 100 years, Franklin’s family has owned property just yards away from the imaginary line separating Eatonville from her home in Maitland, but she remembers when that division 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.”

Like other black children at the time, Franklin attended Hungerford School, one of the best schools for vocational training and early STEM-like programs.

Today, what was once a sprawling campus is practically empty.

But every year- up until the coronavirus pandemic- the grounds come alive to celebrate the city’s most famous former resident, Author and Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.

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“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.”

Hurston rose to stardom during the Harlem Renaissance.

She wrote about Eatonville throughout her life, and in her most famous novel, “Their eyes were watching God.” She said, “Maitland is Maitland until it gets to Hurst’s Corner, and then it is Eatonville.”

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