Eatonville, the Town that Freedom Built, Still Stands as a Beacon of Hope and Progress
The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (PEC) may be best known for hosting its annual ZORA! Festival, which celebrates the life and writings of Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), but on a day-to-day basis, the association is responsible for being the advocate that preserves, protects and promotes the historic Eatonville community for posterity.
Hurston called Eatonville her “native village,” the place where she grew up, but it is also the oldest black-incorporated city in the United States. In 1887, it was established by African American freedmen as a place where they could find autonomy and freedom. In her works, Hurston celebrates her hometown as representative of the dignity and beauty of rural Southern, African-American life and culture.
Today, with a population around 2,349, Eatonville is an authentic community that possesses great historical significance, a legacy of racial progress and ultimate success. PEC has recognized that historic preservation must be coupled with vibrant programs in the arts and humanities, and that there must be a focus on educational excellence if it is to conserve the heritage and cultural resources that survive there.
“Pride of heritage is the feel good part of our mission because it allows us to introduce Eatonville to visitors from all over the world. For African Americans, it’s an important part of our heritage,” said NY Nathiri, executive director, Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. “Of equal importance, however, is our educational excellence.”
The Excellence Without Excuse (E-WE) Community Computer Arts Lab and Learning Center was established by PEC in 1997 to meet the needs of children in Eatonville and help them be successful in school and in life. After school and summer programs are designed to assist students with school work when help may not be available to them; help them reach at least their appropriate grade level in reading, math, science and writing skills; provide them with access to reliable technology; and help them retain and build on what they have learned in school.
PEC also works with the Orange County Citizens’ Commission for Children, which solicits proposals from non-profit organizations for children’s services. Through this partnership, it was determined that personal computers were not present in family homes in Eatonville, so the Denton Johnson Community Center is now equipped with them. The partnership also laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Eatonville Neighborhood Center for Families.
“We’ve been working with Orange County in terms of social services since the early 1990s,” said Nathiri. “Mayor Demings has always been incredibly supportive of the ZORA! Festival, making videos and sending letters of support, and we truly appreciate that.”
Nathiri grew up in Eatonville and remembers it fondly as a place where it “took a village.” If she did something wrong, before she got home, her family knew about it. It has always been a tight knit community where people care for one another.
“It was a Norman Rockwell-type of America for African Americans,” she explained. “There’s an authentic emotional attachment here for many people, so we want to ensure we preserve, protect and promote this special community. The smallness of Eatonville is its strength, and the future is bright for a place that already has a wonderful history.”
For more information or to support, go to Preserve Eatonville.