Eatonville Celebrates 125th Anniversary with Gateway Ribbon-Cutting
The small town of Eatonville just north of Orlando is famous 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 weekend, the town is celebrating its 125th anniversary by cutting the ribbon on the crown jewel of a multi-year refurbishment project...an archway visible from Interstate 4 that welcomes visitors to the town of Eatonville.
From its intersection with I-4, Eatonville’s historic main street – East Kennedy Boulevard – stretches five blocks through the town’s business district.
Eatonville Mayor Bruce Mount can’t hide his enthusiasm about the changes that district has seen over the past few years, notably the repainting, repaving and complete re-landscaping of the roadway.
“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 writer Zora Neale 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 the Eatonville’s beautification.
“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.”
While Gallagher and Critton celebrate Eatonville’s present, Maye St. Julien is keeping track of the town’s past. St. Julien is the Chair of the Eatonville Historic Preservation Board.
She 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.”
Now, 125 years after the 27 men signed the articles of incorporation for Eatonville, Mayor Mount will help honor those men by cutting the ribbon on the gateway that commemorates the town’s anniversary. The ribbon will stretch the whole five blocks to the smaller brick columns marking the east end of Eatonville on Kennedy.
Those columns do not have an arch to support…and that seems to be a bit of a problem for one nearby business owner.
Former Eatonville Mayor Abraham Gordon Junior owns the Be Back Fish House, the business closest to those columns. He had a different vision for his end of the street, including a sign 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.”
He says he’d also like some parking in front of his business. But, he adds, he’s seen the changes Eatonville has undergone since he first arrived in the early 1950s, and he says it’s come a very long way from the cluster of houses surrounded by dirt roads and a strained wastewater system that it once was.
As for the refurbishment of Kennedy in general, Gordon calls it “very nice” and says he will remain supportive of it. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, and we don’t need any more problems.”
Besides, Gordon says, he thinks there will be more changes coming.
Gordon is right about that, says Mayor Mount. The changes that Mount have in mind include plans for more development near the new gateway.
“We want it to be mixed use – amphitheatres, 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.”
Mount says that plan 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.