(Nicole Creston, WMFE -- Orlando, Fla.) The small town of Eatonville, Fla. just north of Orlando is best known for being the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the United States. It is also known for being home to historical landmarks like the first Central Florida school for African-Americans, and to notable figures like writer Zora Neale Hurston.
This month, the town celebrated its 125th anniversary by cutting the ribbon on the crown jewel of a multi-year beautification project: an archway visible from Interstate 4. The stately structure welcomes visitors to town and gives Eatonville a new sense of identity. It could be the first step in turning the town into a destination for historic tourism.
Maye St. Julien, Chair of the Eatonville Historic Preservation Board, explains the significance of the year 1887 for Eatonville, and why it’s being recognized 125 years later. “What we celebrate is the actual signing of the articles of incorporation making it an official town recognized by the state.”
The town was actually founded in 1881 by a freed slave named Joe Clark, says St. Julien. She says since African-Americans could only buy individual plots of land back then – enough for one house – Clark sought the help of his boss, citrus industry entrepreneur and retired military captain Josiah Eaton.
“The town is named for Mr. Eaton because he was the major contributor and the major supporter of Joe Clark,” says St. Julien. “And he advertised, and you can see on the newspaper back in 1880s, for people of color to come to Eatonville and own your own land, and you could purchase a lot for $35, or $50 if you needed credit. And that’s how this town was made.”
Six years later, in 1887, men from 27 of Eatonville’s 29 families incorporated the town.
“There were 29, but there was a bit of intimidation on the part of the whites when it was learned that the blacks had acquired this much land,” explains St. Julien. “So, two of them became a little concerned and chose not to participate in that, but thank goodness and God bless the 27 who did,” says St. Julien.
Eatonville’s historic main street is East Kennedy Boulevard. From its intersection with I-4, the town’s business district stretches east about five blocks and the whole strip has been completely refurbished. The road has been repaved and repainted, brick pedestrian walkways have been added, and sidewalks are bristling with Florida-friendly flowers and foliage.
Eatonville Mayor Bruce Mount can’t hide his enthusiasm about the changes that district has seen over the past few years. “If you haven’t been down Kennedy Boulevard lately, you will not know Kennedy Boulevard,” says Mount.
Famous African-American institutions including the Hungerford Normal and Industrial School and figures like Hurston shared addresses along the storied piece of pavement.
And now, Eatonville is getting the kind of gateway its leaders say it deserves. A new iron archway mounted on brick columns stretches across Kennedy, facing I-4. A sign at the top extends a welcome to Eatonville and displays information about the historic town and its 125th anniversary. Mount says the whole structure lights up at night.
“It has a clock on it and it also has some nice plaques on it,” Mount adds. “The Zora Neale Hurston plaque is there, the school [plaque] is there, so that is a very nice theme to the streetscape… The citizens are proud. I’m getting calls all the time.”
The vast majority of those calls about Kennedy’s overhaul are positive, he says.
And so is most of the conversation down the street during a recent lunchtime rush at Vonya’s Southern Cooking Café on Kennedy. The customers were buzzing about Eatonville’s makeover.
“Huge difference already,” says nine-year Eatonville resident Darrius Gallagher. “It should be very beautiful. It’s a very historic town.”
Esther Critton has lived in Eatonville all of her nineteen years. “With them doing the construction, it gives the town a better look and then makes the people feel good, makes the town run smoother,” she says. “So, we’re coming a long way.”
In August 2012, 125 years after the 27 men signed the articles of incorporation for Eatonville, Mayor Mount helped honor those men by cutting the ribbon on the gateway that commemorates the town’s anniversary. The ribbon stretched the full five blocks of the business district, wrapping around the smaller brick columns that now mark the east end of Eatonville on Kennedy.
Those columns, although constructed as part of the same project as the gateway, do not have an arch to support. That seems to be a bit of a problem for one nearby business owner - former Eatonville Mayor Abraham Gordon Junior.
Gordon owns the Be Back Fish House, a seafood restaurant and the business closest to those columns. He had a different vision for his end of the street, including a sign identifying the town and, ideally, an archway like the one close to I-4.
“It should’ve been the same height that is down on that end,” says Gordon, “and just had across ‘Welcome to Eatonville’ and that would’ve made it somewhat complete.”Gordon also says the placement of the columns so near his restaurant used up space he was hoping he could dedicate to his customers.
“There’s parking in front of every business in the town of Eatonville,” explains Gordon. “There’s parking in places where there’s no business in the town of Eatonville. And no parking in front of this place, where there is business.”
Instead, he points out, there’s a proliferation of that Florida-friendly foliage, which is mean to enhance the look of the columns but winds up partially obscuring his restaurant from view.
But, he adds, he’s seen the changes Eatonville has undergone since he first arrived in the early 1950s, and he doesn’t want to stand in the way of the town’s evolution. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, and we don’t need any more problems.”
He says Eatonville has come a very long way from the cluster of houses surrounded by dirt roads and strained wastewater systems he first saw, and overall he says the town’s new look is “very nice.”
Eatonville Public Works Director Abraham Canady says, “the construction is a result of a federal grant that was spearheaded by Congresswoman Corrine Brown." She adds, "the grant went through the Federal Highway Administration to Florida Department of Transportation.”
Canady says the current construction value of the project is about $1.4 million, and he thinks it’s worth every penny, especially the west end gateway that draws welcome attention to the town.
And that’s just the beginning, according to Mayor Mount. There are more changes coming, starting with plans for more development near the new gateway.
“We want it to be mixed use – amphitheaters, the eateries, the hotels,” he says. “That’s what we want. We want Eatonville, when we’re talking about the future, to be a tourist destination. And because people say, ‘What do you have to sell, what do people have to sell?’ Our history.”
He says Eatonville could capitalize on “historical tourism” and become a destination for visitors looking for a different type of Orlando vacation than the theme parks offer.
Mount says that idea is still in the early stages. Next step – a visioning meeting with the town council as Eatonville continues to evolve…and celebrate its anniversary throughout the year.
Click here to listen to Nicole Creston's report on Eatonville at WMFE.