Welcome to Eatonville, the Town that Freedom Built

Welcome to Eatonville, the Town that Freedom Built

Eatonville mural of Zora Neale Hurston. scaled

Posted February 5, 2024

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I’ve driven by the exit off Interstate 4 just north of Orlando, Florida, dozens of times, and always wondered about Eatonville. You can see the sign from the freeway that reads “Oldest Incorporated African American Municipality in America.” Recently, I decided to take the exit and finally explore this city of deep significance to our country.

History of Eatonville

Freed slaves from Alabama and Georgia began to settle in Central Florida in the 1880s and started clearing the land, planting crops, and working in citrus groves. As respected citizens and businessmen, they desired a town of their own. Procuring land for freed men was still difficult, but with the help of Northern philanthropist Lewis Lawrence and local landowner Josiah Eaton, the settlers were able to purchase land in 1887 and named it “Eatonville” in Josiah Eaton’s honor. Elections were held, a church took root, and a school was formed. Eatonville became the first city in the U.S. to be organized, incorporated, and governed by Blacks, providing opportunities for self-governance, education, and economic growth that drew other people of color from all over the region.

Zora Neale Hurston

One such family that moved to town was that of Zora Neale Hurston, the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer who recorded her childhood in Eatonville and later years in Dust Tracks on a Road. She paints a vibrant picture of the town, from the mango groves in her backyard to the folklore traditions of Eatonville’s residents.

Hurston went on to pen numerous novels, attend graduate studies in anthropology, and conduct field research into African American folklore in the South. She became a celebrated voice in capturing and retelling African American culture, and Eatonville is proud to call her their own.

The Hurston Museum

Officially called the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, The Hurston should be your first stop in Eatonville. Here you’ll see rotating exhibits that showcase the art of the African Diaspora and find materials that dive deeper into Hurston’s impact on the art and culture of her era. You can also pick up a map of a walking tour through the town.

Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts. Wikimedia Commons
Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts. Wikimedia Commons

Eatonville also commemorates the accomplishments of Zora Neale Hurston with the annual Zora! Festival, celebrating the cultural contributions Hurston made as an author, artist, and anthropologist that helped carry the town of Eatonville from the past into the future. Throughout the year, Eatonville holds Zora-related book clubs, and lectures and publishes a newsletter called The Hurston Herald.

RISE: The Mural Project

A QR code in front of City Hall tipped me off to a mural project in Elizabeth Park. It’s a bit hidden, but worth the detour two blocks off Kennedy Boulevard to West Street. Entitled RISE, this public mural project beautifies the community basketball court with the work of seven muralists, six poets, and two calligraphy artists. These thought-provoking collaborations of art and poetry celebrate the history, inspire positivity toward the future and aspire to unite the community. A visit to RISE was one of the highlights of my time in Eatonville.

Moseley House

Located on the eastern boundary of Eatonville, the Moseley House is the second oldest structure in the town of Eatonville and has been restored as a museum. It was built in 1888 and owned by Jim and Matilda Clark Moseley. Matilda, known as “Millie,” was best friends with Hurston, who was a frequent visitor to the home.

Photos of Hurston throughout remind visitors of her presence in the home, which has been restored with period pieces. Taking a tour gives a glimpse back in time, from the cast iron stove in the kitchen to the manual typewriter in the den. I can imagine Millie and Hurston sitting in the rocking chairs on the front porch and chatting about life.

Moseley House is one of the town's oldest remaining structures. Photo: Kirsten Harrington
Moseley House is one of the town’s oldest remaining structures. Photo: Kirsten Harrington

DaJen Eats – Vegan Food with Jamaican Flare

If there’s a thriving heart and soul to Eatonville, it’s DaJen Eats. This strip mall restaurant with a bold interior draws locals, foodies, and vegan curious diners. They stand in line for jerk “chicken,” buffalo cauliflower, mac and cheese, and cornbread. Those who can’t make up their minds, like me, order the Identity Crisis sandwich, half jerk and half buffalo “chicken.” It’s a great place to refuel and absorb the culture after exploring Eatonville.

A reggae band plays during Sunday brunch as regulars greet each other with wah gwaan, a Jamaican greeting for “hey, what’s up.” The red, green, and yellow walls are lined with bits of the history of Eatonville and inspirational quotes from Hurston’s books.

“When the opportunity presented itself to be part of this historic town, I thought all the stars aligned,” said Jenn Ross, the restaurant’s chef, and founder who has been in Eatonville since 2018.

“It has always been important to me to continue representing people of color at the vegan table,” she said. “We have always been there, but as in many other areas, are often underrepresented. Representation matters. Seeing someone who looks like me do a thing, makes that thing more conceivable to me,” said Ross, who came to Orlando from Jamaica at age 16.

Art & History Museums Maitland

After your visit to Eatonville, head a mile down the road to Maitland. Here you’ll find a collection of four museums. Of significant note is the Research Studio, designed by artist and Hurston contemporary Jules Andre Smith. Smith designed the expansive studio as a sanctuary where artists (over 60 in total) could come to live and pursue exploratory art. The studio is one of the most notable examples of Mayan Revival architecture in the country, earning a National Historic Landmark designation. Take time to explore the white and blue courtyards, tranquil gardens, and outbuildings which still serve as a working artists’ colony today.