Six miles north of Orlando is a sleepy-looking town untouched by the sprawling arms of urbanization. Eatonville, home to Harlem Renaissance Alabama-born folklorist, anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston, was the first African-American municipality in the United States. It incorporated in 1887 at a time when most of America still struggled with post-Civil War racial tensions.
Today, it is precisely this symbiotic relationship between Hurston and Eatonville that has kept this sleepy-looking town restless — a legacy that materialized into the famed ZORA! Festival, now in its 26th year and ultimately what saved Eatonville from urban sprawl.
"We organized in response to a road-improvement project that was going to destroy this community," said N.Y. Nathiri, who founded the festival in an effort to prevent Orange County commissioners from widening Kennedy Boulevard to five lanes.
Since its inception, the festival was a magnet for the likes of Toni Morrison, Niki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, among others. For many, it has become an annual family tradition and for others it is an opportunity to remember an author who sadly, despite her initial fame and influence worldwide, grew up in Eatonville and died penniless in Fort Pierce in 1960.
"Hurston was a maverick and Eatonville was a maverick. She's a wonderful product of a place, culture and ethos," said Gillian Johns, an English professor at Oberlin College in Cleveland, Ohio. "My admiration for her goes back to when I was a graduate student. I did my dissertation in one of her novels and this is the first opportunity I've had to come to the festival, which I've known about for years."
She adds the festival is a bedrock for mediation, teaching young people the variety of ways to embrace African-American traditions other than through pop culture.
In her book Mules and Men, Hurston writes: "So I rounded Park Lake and came speeding down the straight stretch into Eatonville, the city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail-house."
Video: Eatonville's ZORA! Festival. Video by Juan David Romero, Central Florida Future. Video by Juan David Romero, Central Florida Future
Today, Eatonville has more than 3,000 residents, mostly black, and this year's ZORA! Festival attracted more than 30,000 adults and children over the nine-day celebration that ended Sunday. The event included the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Historic Preservation Conference as well as performance events with musical groups such as Orisirisi, Frankie Beverly and Najee.
UCF, among other contributors, brought students from its Zora Neale Hurston Institute for Documentary Studies to volunteer. Kerwin Foster, a senior and one of the students at the Institute, said the festival brings awareness to all of the work Hurston has done for the community and authorship in America, an effort the Institute itself has pioneered by documenting the cultural histories of marginalized communities.
When Hurston returned to Eatonville, she was returning to a community intentionally segregated from the rest of America where everyone, from the mayor to the next-door neighbor, was of African-American descent. Rare at the time, Hurston was a product of an independent town that knew no discrimination, and this in part shaped her outlook and her literature.
"Today, a lot of people in Eatonville are proud of Eatonville as 'the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the United States,' but I don't think they actually know it in the way that some of us now in our 60s and 70s knew it because the time was different," Nathiri said.
When Hurston ventured back to Eatonville to document the overtly rejected southern rural vernacular and ways of life, she understood the significance of writing about the black community from within. Like many at the time, however, she opposed integration. To her, it meant accepting blacks could not succeed on their own. This made her very unpopular at a time when the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in schools across the United States.
However, Hurston both altered and preserved Eatonville, or "The Town that Freedom Built." Her legacy is inspiration, art, literature and an ongoing anthropological project still vibrant as the town prepares for the year-long celebration of her 125th birthday kick-off next year.
Juan David Romero is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.