Two decades ago, Eatonville used its link to Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston to get noticed by the world.
Now, as the community attempts to transform itself into a major African-American cultural destination, leaders are struggling to define the small town's identity in the famous author's shadow.
Consultants say Eatonville should build on its annual festival celebrating Hurston's life, work and childhood home that drew 100,000 people last year. A cultural corridor could attract blacks visiting the Orlando area for family reunions, conferences, football weekends and other events, they say.
With a key piece of land now within the town's reach, the consultants have proposed a $73 million cultural campus on the 115-acre site of the former Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School along Wymore Road east of Interstate 4. Plans include artists studios and galleries, a children's art and folklore museum, an amphitheater and hotel and restaurants. The project could provide educational and cultural amenities for local residents as well as for schools and other groups.
But longtime Eatonville families and leaders have always been protective of the town's history. And some are sensitive about Hurston outshining the rest of the town's story that began in 1887, when Joseph E. Clark and 26 other black men voted to form their own municipality.
"The town of Eatonville is the one that's struggling. If the town goes under, what will be left? Just Zora?" artist Jane Turner said.
"Zora is a part of us, and we don't ever want to forget that, but…we can't forget the history of our beginning," Councilwoman Marilyn Davis said. "Without Joe Clark, this would not be the oldest black municipality in America. You've got to remember all of this history came before Zora."
Consultants Walter Huntley and Clara Axum with Huntley Partners emphasized that Eatonville has "not scratched the surface" of its history when it comes to marketing the town. Besides touting itself as the first all-black town to incorporate in the U.S., Eatonville was home to The Hungerford School, an all-black private boarding and day school modeled on Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
But, they said, the town can't ignore the commercial potential of its association with Hurston, who put Eatonville on the map in Their Eyes Were Watching God and other books.
"Zora…is so nationally and internationally known. It's no more important than the history of the town, but it's a hook for a lot of the funding that you may want to attract," Axum said. "Because you already have some demonstrated success with that…you should use it."
Without Zora, "You'd just have what all those other towns have," Huntley added. "The land and no brand."
N.Y. Nathiri, head of the group that started the annual Zora! festival and operates the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, is quick to remind people that the festival was born as a way to fend off an effort to put a five-lane highway through Eatonville's center. Two years later, the group got Eatonville on the National Register of Historic Places.
"Zora Neale Hurston was never supposed to be more than a marketing tool to let people know that Eatonville was more than a little colored town," said Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. "Zora Neale Hurston was used to save this community."
Still up in the air is whether Eatonville can put together a deal to buy the property, home of Hungerford Elementary and the shuttered Hungerford Prep, from the Orange County School District. The town has at least until January 2012 to buy the land for its appraised value, plus half of any proceeds it makes by reselling the property to a developer. Any proceeds to the town must benefit the children of Eatonville.
The trust that controls a portion of the land and had concerns about its sale now says it won't get in the way of the deal, as long as the town makes an effort to replace Hungerford Prep with another school, possibly some type of charter.
The most recent idea came from the Junior Achievement organization for a business-oriented high school. Gary Blanchette, president of Junior Achievement of Central Florida, said it's still interested in the project but couldn't afford to take over operations for at least three years.
Daphne Sashin can be reached at email@example.com or 407-650-6361.