This Central Florida city was first in US to be governed by African-American citizens

Residents of Eatonville take pride in city's history

EATONVILLE, Fla. – Eatonville, a community in Central Florida, became the first all-black city to be incorporated in Florida nearly 132 years ago. 

The city sits just 6 miles north of Orlando.

"The pillars of this town is education, is spirituality and is family," Veronica Smith, the executive assistant for Eatonville's mayor, said.

N.Y. Nathiri has lived in Eatonville pretty much her entire life.

"There's a kind of family relationship in Eatonville. As a matter of fact, my mother says that in historical Eatonville, most everybody is connected," Nathiri said.

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Nathiri is the executive director of the Association to Preserve Eatonville. She works in town at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts.

"People come here to view the museum. We have group tours, because people are interested. They're really fascinated by historic Eatonville and what it represents," Nathiri said.

A historical town of about 2,500 people, Eatonville was the first black community to be incorporated in the country -- during a time when blacks were persecuted. 

"In other areas of the United States, where other towns were being burned down and lives were being taken, you had Eatonville here, who was being governed by (an) African-American council," Smith said.

Back in 1880, newly freed slaves came down from the north and settled in Eatonville.

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They worked to clear the land, planted crops and built houses, hotels and even the railroad system. 

By 1887, the settlers had become community members and businessmen. They bought 112 acres of land, and on Aug. 15, Eatonville was born. 

"This is really a national treasure, and I say that we have been able to make that case, not only after 30 years (of) the Zora Hurston Festival of (the) Arts (and) Humanities, but on a daily basis," Nathiri said.

Nathiri said that Zora Neale Hurston, a folklorist, anthropologist and writer, highlighted the city throughout her literature. 

"What she did was to recognize the dignity and the beauty of the culture, of people of African ancestry in the rural south," Nathiri said.

NFL players Deacon Jones, who played for the Los Angeles Rams, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, of the Washington Redskins, are also from Eatonville, as well as TV and Broadway star Norm Lewis, who was the grand marshall for the Martin Luther King parade this year.

"It's a pride that African-Americans can really embrace, because during discrimination and many of the challenges that we were going through as a race, the town of Eatonville took courage," Smith said.

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It's that courage that residents of the city say they will continue to pass down.

"Zora Neale has really paved the way. You have to continue to tell the story. We continue to tell the story even now, with our founders dead," Smith said. "In August of every year, we tell the story of Eatonville. We don't allow the narrative to get lost."

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