By Esther Schrader

Behind a chain-link fence six miles from the cacophony of Orlando, a jumble of old masonry sits quiet and still, the foundations of what was the heart of a historically Black community nearly obscured by tall grasses swaying in a hot Central Florida wind.

The Hungerford property, as it is known, makes up 15% of the tiny town of Eatonville, a 1.6-square-mile patch of modest homes and businesses that is one of the oldest incorporated Black communities in the U.S. For the county school board offering the 100-acre tract for sale, the developers eager to build on it and a narrow majority of the town council, it is clear what they see behind the fence: profit.

But if only they could gaze into Hungerford’s past, they would see the young Zora Neale Hurston, the queen of the Harlem Renaissance, skipping joyfully through the beloved Black town she grew up in and immortalized in her literary masterpieces. They would see a school founded with the help of Booker T. Washington filled with Black students thriving even as they were denied opportunities in the white-run world around them. They would see the mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and grandfathers of Eatonville come to life from old photographs still cherished by their descendants – dancing around a maypole, striding with confidence to and from a Black-owned sawmill and a brickworks, harvesting sugarcane and oranges on their own farms – and teaching their children the pride of a place of their own.

Today, 135 years after the 1887 founding of “The Town that Freedom Built,” that vision is clouded.

• TIMELINE: History of Eatonville, Florida

Eatonville, where 73% of residents are Black, faces what community activists call an existential choice. Either the Hungerford property is saved, opening the possibility of using the land to honor and build on the heritage of the town with a museum and other cultural and historical attractions, or the development “is going to eat Eatonville,” said Scot French, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida who has spent decades studying the historically Black community. “You know, it’s just going to devour it.”

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This article was first published by Southern Poverty Law Center