In Hurston’s Florida hometown, development plans inspire a revolt
Eatonville officials were for the developers’ plan until the people spoke out against it
Entrance to historic Eatonville, a town north of Orlando in Orange County. Credit: Zillow.
Florida has inspired a lot of great writers, but which one would you say was the toughest?
Was it Ernest Hemingway, who once punched out a poet in Key West? Or Carl Hiaasen, who was a hard-nosed investigative reporter before becoming the sharp satirist we all love to laugh along with? Or how about darkly comic crime novelist Charles Willeford, who once dismissed a fan sending him a book punctured by six bullet holes as “getting good feedback”?
My nominee for the title of the Toughest Florida Writer Ever is Zora Neale Hurston. She’s the author of the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.,” in which she famously described the 1928 hurricane as a “monstropolous beast.”
In the 1930s, when it was rare to see a Black woman behind the wheel of a car, Hurston drove a speedy roadster all over the state. She visited mines, sawmills and turpentine camps, collecting anthropological information by pretending to be a bootlegger on the lam. A lot of the folks she interviewed were armed with knives, razors and pistols.
She later wrote that her life was in danger several times: “If I had not learned how to take care of myself … I could have been maimed or killed.”
Hurston learned that confidence while growing up in the Central Florida town of Eatonville, just a few miles north of Orlando. It happens to be the oldest incorporated Black town in America.
These days Eatonville itself is grappling with a “monstropolous beast,” the one that’s destroying vast swaths of the state: uncontrolled development. In Eatonville, the issue came to a head in a town council meeting last week — and yielded a surprising result.
All over the state, government officials are giving the green light to rapacious developers. All over the state, people are fighting back against development plans that they believe will ruin things about Florida they hold dear — their rural lifestyle, for instance, or the natural beauty that attracted them to the area.
In Eatonville they have another concern, which recently elected Mayor Angie Gardner spelled out in a December interview with the Orlando Sentinel: “One of the fears is that the wrong development can pretty much cancel out our culture here,” she said.
And you know how much our current state leaders hate “cancel culture.”
Gov. Ron “I Only Care About the White Folks Who Watch Fox News” DeSantis would object to me telling you this, but <looks around carefully, then lowers voice to a whisper> February is Black History Month.
Florida has a whole bunch of Black history to celebrate, too. To name a few, there were the bloody St. Augustine protests that led Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the successful 1956 Tallahassee Bus Boycott, and the 1961 “wade-ins” that ended segregation at the beaches of Fort Lauderdale.
The founding of Eatonville predates all of that.
After the Civil War, newly freed slaves flocked to Central Florida, where they found work clearing land, building houses and planting crops, according to the town’s official history. But they wanted their own place to live as free men and women, where they were the voters and controlled their own government.
Two white men, Northern philanthropist Lewis Lawrence and local Navy veteran Capt. Josiah Eaton, subdivided more than 100 acres to get the town started (it’s now more than 700). The residents officially incorporated as a town in 1887 and, at Lawrence’s suggestion, they named it in Eaton’s honor.
“Thus the first town to be organized, governed and incorporated by African-American citizens in this country was born,” the history says.
Central to the town sense of community were two institutions: a church (the St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal) and a school.
Eatonville’s Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, founded in 1889, was a remarkable place. Back then there weren’t that many schools of any kind around Florida, much less schools for Black kids. Most children were expected to work, not study and learn the way they did at Hungerford.
Modeled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, Hungerford attracted students not just from around Florida, but also from Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. It even became something of a tourist attraction.
“The whites who came down from the North were often brought by their friends to visit the village school. A Negro school was something strange to them.” Hurston wrote in her 1942 autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.”
But by 1950, enrollment had dropped and the school had fallen into disrepair. As a result, in 1952 something I can only classify as “shady” happened: The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the privately owned school property must be handed over to the Orange County School Board to run as a segregated public school for Black children.
Why would the state’s highest court do such a thing?
You may find a clue in the fact that one of the justices — in fact, the one who wrote that 1952 opinion — was a former legislator who, according to his official biography,” led an unsuccessful effort to exclude Black citizens from the Democratic primary election in 1947.” He had “also opposed racial integration at the University of Florida when a qualified black student applied to the law school.”
Gee, what would the controversial Critical Race Theory make of a white supremacist Supreme Court justice leading his white colleagues in taking a Black school away from its owners in a Black-run town and giving it to a white-run school system?
Oh well, Florida’s leaders don’t want us to pay any attention to CRT so I guess we’ll never know! Sorry!
Anyway, the school board now wants to sell that 100-acre Hungerford parcel to developers, and the developers want to build something that’s not allowed by Eatonville’s comprehensive plan.
Eatonville’s leaders were fine with that — until they heard from their constituents.
A ‘culture of corruption’
A school board spokesman sent me a chronology that shows that they’ve been working to sell off this property for quite some time. At one point, back in 2010, the school board was even going to sell the land to the city, but then it didn’t.
When I asked why that deal fell through, the spokesman, Michael Ollendorff, said, “I believe they didn’t have the funds to pay for it.”
Apparently, no Northern philanthropists stepped forward to help this historically Black town come up with the dough to buy the site of the now-demolished school. Go figure.
The current deal, as outlined in that December story in the Sentinel, calls for the school board to sell the property for $14 million to a Winter Park-based real estate developer named Hungerford Park LLC.
Corporate records show Hungerford Park LLC is a joint operation of two white guys: Kyle Sanders of Sovereign Land Co. and Allan Keen of the Keewin Real Property Co.
Sovereign’s website boasts that it’s no novice when it comes to real estate wheeling and dealing: “Since 2011, Sovereign has sold over $200 million in real estate, including 2,000 acres of land and 5,000 home sites, to some of the largest and well-established homebuilders, developers, and investors.”
But Sovereign is a piker compared to Keen. Thanks to a college buddy’s connections, he wound up as the exclusive real estate broker for Universal Studios theme park when it first arrived.
Keen has also been a public servant — sort of.
He served as chairman of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority for four years but resigned amid a growing scandal. Then a 2009 grand jury found that, while he was chairman, he used a couple of longtime authority consultants to lean on firms doing business with the agency and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions for such candidates as U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.
As a longtime Florida scandal-watcher, I have to say that you know things look bad for you when your attorney has to insist to the local paper that there was no “culture of corruption” at the agency you led, even though the grand jury uses those exact words. However, Keen was never charged with any crime.
At the Eatonville school site, Keen and Sanders (not to be confused with the British comedy duo French & Saunders) have proposed building about 350 new housing units. It’s a mix of apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes. They also plan new stores, restaurants and a grocery.
The retail, restaurants, and grocery are not a problem. But to build all that upper-echelon housing would require changing the city’s comprehensive plan for the area’s future growth.
A lot of Florida cities and counties rush to change their well-thought-out comp plans to accommodate the wishes and whims of developers, especially when those developers are campaign contributors. They are willing to overlook any signs that the developer isn’t on the up and up, or the project is on sh-sh-shaky (or soggy) ground. There’s the added fear of a Bert Harris Act suit against them if they dare to say no.
So, it’s understandable that, at first, the Eatonville Town Council voted 3-2 in favor of changing its comp plan to what the developer wanted.
But then the people of Eatonville spoke up.
The right kind of development
I called up Mayor Gardner to ask her about what happened. It turns out that she’s a fairly patient person, even in dealing with inveterate smart alecks like me. She has to be patient in her regular job.
As far as I know, she is the only elected official in the state who’s also an elementary school teacher. Imagine if one of the characters from the TV show “Abbott Elementary” had to run a city council meeting, and you can see the similarity of needing a particular set of skills.
I asked her if wrangling a bunch of second graders through a school day was good preparation for dealing with the insanity of Florida politics. She said both required being willing to speak up when necessary. Then I compared a group of short-attention-span kids to the Florida Legislature. She got a laugh out of that but wisely offered no comment.
When I asked her what changed in Eatonville after the council’s initial approval of the Hungerford project, she said, “Between the first and second vote, the citizens started expressing their opinions.”
Eatonville residents were concerned that the city was allowing well-connected builders to put up housing that no one in town could afford. New people would move in who wouldn’t know a thing about the town’s culture and heritage — the first step toward demolishing it the way Orange County demolished the old school.
Gardner agreed with those concerns.
“I’m for development,” the mayor told me, “but I’m for the right kind of development, for the right reason.”
Prior to the council’s second vote on the project last week, the Sentinel reported, Gardner herself made an impassioned speech against the comp plan change. In it, she “leaned on history to make her point as she rattled through a list of Black settlements and municipalities that, like Eatonville, were founded after the Civil War. The others, however, had long since become just a memory, their futures either taken by force or erased by violent attacks, migration and development.”
She warned against approving anything that would put Eatonville on a similar path. She also said she had “attempted to meet with School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs for several months to discuss the future of the land but her requests have been ignored.”
Ultimately, the council voted 4-1 last week against approving the comp plan changes sought by the developers.
What happens next? Ollendorff, the school board spokesman, told me repeatedly that the land deal is still scheduled to close on March 31 and that’s all that agency cares about. Gardner said the developers are free to build things that jibe with the comp plan, and nothing that doesn’t.
I reached out to Keen and Sanders and their attorney, Derek Bruce, replied on their behalf.
“The team is evaluating its options and has not made a decision about how — or whether — to move forward with closing on its acquisition of the Hungerford site at this time,” Bruce said.
I hope they go along with the council’s wishes, rather than trying to fight this in court or pull strings with their political connections. After all, they knew what the comp plan said when they agreed to buy the land.
But if they do seek some sort of revenge on Eatonville, I hope the ghost of Zora Neale Hurston haunts them, cackling in their ears, giving them restless nights and rotten dreams. Maybe she’ll even pursue them in her speedy roadster, like some sort of monstropolous beast.
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