Millard Livatt takes pride in knowing the literary destination he’s called home for more than 50 years is still standing. Made famous by the late Zora Neale Hurston, Eatonville, Florida, is one of the oldest Black-incorporated towns in the U.S. 

Despite high poverty rates, limited job opportunities and food insecurity, Livatt said he looks beyond the challenges and envisions the future of the town — located just 10 minutes from downtown Orlando — as one that is economically thriving and self-sufficient, just as it was following its founding in 1887.

At issue is the proposed construction on the land of the historic Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School, a former private boarding school for Black students built on 300 acres in 1897. Nearly 50 years after the school was built, Orange County Public Schools bought the land from the trust overseeing the property, and over the years has sold 200 acres. By March 31, the county’s majority-white school board hopes to sell the remaining 100 acres for nearly $15 million to private developer Sovereign Land Co. for a mixed-use development project that includes hundreds of residential housing.

Residents say this move would not only eradicate their history, but price out its majority-Black population and control its economic resources and land. The town of nearly 2,500 people is 79% Black, with a median household income of about $28,000. It was only recently that most of the residents learned of the deal — despite it being in the works for nearly a year. 

Longtime residents like Livatt are fighting back and demanding that the land — which they say has been stolen from them — be donated to the community to create a cultural oasis to honor their history and heritage. Since October, they have formed a grassroots movement: They’ve created a petition to stop the sale, hosted informational meetings, and packed out Town Council meetings to voice their concerns.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. The complaint is challenging the imminent sale and is seeking economic justice for the residents who fear land development could price them out of their homes and destroy the town’s cultural influence.

“This whole ordeal will eventually remove the fingerprint of what those men and women started when we were incorporated as a town,” Livatt said. “When a developer comes to a town and they want to do certain things, it has to have strong public input. … It’s 2023, and we’re still being treated as three-fifths of a human.”

Eatonville Mayor Angie Gardner, a staunch opponent of the proposal, voted no twice on the proposal, last September and in February, because the plan reduced commercial property and increased residential homes to a price tag between $400,000 to $600,000, which “is not for our residents and would build a city within a city.” The median value of a home in the town is $125,000 — half the price of a home in nearby Orlando, according to census data

“The way [the property] is set up is you have an exit on Main Street, [meaning] you would never have to engage with our town at all,” she said. “Once you reduce the commercial, you reduce the ability of current residents from enjoying life as others in their own city. … I didn’t see us in the [development].”

Eatonville Mayor Angie Gardner and the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. hosts a set of community meetings about the historic Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School campus property. (Julian Johnson)

With historic Black towns being far and few, Livatt, a 55-year-old community advocate who teaches Sunday school at a local church, is clear about the value of investing back into the community.

“I would like to see the Oprah Winfrey School of Broadcast Journalism. The Eatonville Academy of the Arts. I’d like to see us with a nice amphitheater where we attract acts,” he says. “We wouldn’t have to go across town to see the Isley Brothers or New Edition. All these acts could come here like they used to have on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Building a City Within a City 

On a Thursday afternoon in August, Eatonville native Julian Johnson found himself in a planning and zoning meeting at the Eatonville Town Hall. Two days earlier, he had stopped by a town council meeting hoping to learn about potential office spaces for his business. He didn’t, so he decided to go to the planning meeting. The department regularly reviews regulations for land development to ensure future projects are in compliance with the town’s comprehensive plan. While listening out for potential locations, Johnson stumbled upon something else: a mixed-use development that could be coming to town. After a development firm pitched the project, Johnson said the zoning commission immediately said yes, which gave him a red flag. 

Through a 30-day bidding process, Orange County Public Schools and Eatonville had selected the Falcone Group to redevelop the Hungerford site. The developer then brought on Sovereign, another development firm, to help with the project. The Falcone Group has since pulled out of the project because “the opportunity did not meet all of our required diligence criteria.”

In September, after another Town Council meeting, three of the five council members voted to approve the rezoning of the site, a key measure to move the project forward. They also agreed to make amendments to the town’s 2018 comprehensive plan to meet the developer’s site plan.

Johnson immediately sprung into action, forming his organization Land Back 1887 and partnering with the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. to inform the community about what was happening at the council meetings. They went door to door with flyers, encouraged them to attend upcoming meetings, and interviewed residents about their wants and desires for the land. On the list of items were a grocery store, office spaces, an event center, and a cultural heritage museum.

The decision over the land, he said, would dictate the future of the town, which is on the National Register of Historic Places administered by the National Park Service.

“Once you start talking about bringing in a new community, you’re talking about displacing the current community that is there,” Johnson said. “We can look at it statistically, our income levels are low, all of these different types of problems, but they’re not solving those problems. They’re going to say, ‘Oh, you need more tax base.’ They know that this is going to wash away the town.”

After months of community uproar, the Town Council — in a 4-1 vote — rejected an ordinance at a Feb. 7 meeting that would have enacted zoning changes and made amendments to the town’s 2018 comprehensive plan to align with the developer’s plan.

“We started blowing up [council member] phones, sending emails, and people were going around the town calling them sellouts and coons,” Johnson said. “I guess they actually did their due diligence and saw that it didn’t match [the town’s] current plan. We believe the vote changed because of the work we did.”

Despite the council’s opposition, Mayor Gardner told Capital B that the school district can still move forward with the sale.

“We killed their request for the changes, but it did not kill the contract with Orange County Public Schools,” she said. “If the school board closes with the developers, they can still build without our approval, as long as the development meets the comprehensive plan currently in place.”

The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. reached out to the Southern Poverty Law Center last spring to help. In a letter to the general counsel for the Orange County schools, the SPLC asked the board to abandon the sale and turn the land back over to the community in a land trust. The letter said the sale “likely violates the [Orange County Public Schools’] civil rights obligations including under Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts.” 

“[The school district] is profiting off a system of segregation and discrimination that it actively participated in to create the historical and current conditions of unequal access to land, power, and education on the basis of race that is at the core of this current dispute over the Hungerford property,” the letter said. “We urge [them] to instead seek an alternative course of action that respects the community’s self-determination over this land and ensure the land continues to serve the public trust in a way that honors its unique role in American history.

On Friday, the SPLC filed the lawsuit on behalf of the residents, who want “a declaration from the court that the 1951 deed restriction is valid and continues in effect on the remaining portion of the property and that the release of the deed restriction in 2022, which cleared the way for OCPS to sell the property to private developers, is invalid,” the SPLC said in a statement. They’re also alleging that the school board failed to comply with its obligations under state law.

In a statement, the spokesperson from the Orange County Public Schools told Capital B they are “proceeding with the sale that honors the contract with the purchaser. The purchaser still has the option to proceed with closing on or before March 31, 2023.” 

‘A tactic they’ve used for years’

In the 1890s, philanthropists donated the land to Eatonville to build the first Black school in central Florida. In the 1950s, the Orange County Public Schools paid the lease on the property to acquire the land from Hungerford Trust under the condition the site would be used to educate Black kids. One of the trustees contested the sale, which led to a lawsuit. A circuit court judge ruled in 1974 that the school system could dissolve the education restriction, except for the portion of the land where the school was located. After the judge’s ruling, the school board began selling acres of the land, claiming it was no longer necessary for educational purposes. Of 136 acres sold, the board made a profit of $1.38 million. 

Tiffany Simmons, a Navy veteran and native, said the selling of the last acres of land to developers  “triggered” her because of the years of harm done by Orange County Public Schools.

“Those 200 acres they sold off …  till this day, it was never a profit for Eatonville. So when you tell me about this last 100 acres, it is triggering because … they are trying to sell it to private developers to build something that is not in line with the townspeople,” Simmons said. “This is wrong in so many ways, but this is a tactic they’ve used for years.”

When the county school board permanently closed the Hungerford high school in 2009, they started selling more of the historic land, where a Tesla vehicle storage now sits as well as an interstate interchange and a data center facility.

In 2020, the district demolished the high school — without notifying the community — and started pursuing a sale on the last 100 acres, which led to this current agreement with the Sovereign Land Co. 

By tearing down the building, it tore down a staple in the community, Johnson said, as it was used for a meeting place for summer camps and youth recreational activities.

“We took care of kids who couldn’t go to the Boys and Girls Club. We operated in the gym, we operated on that school property. When we had different events, it was a way of revenue for us,” Johnson said. “It was more than just a building once they tore it down. We didn’t have anything else.”

After its inception, the all-Black town marketed itself as an “operational and affordable all-black utopia, a working alternative for freedmen living in more oppressive communities in the South.” It became an area where Black people bought land, built homes, and had quality education that attracted students from other states. Forced integration served as one of the reasons for the town’s present day financial struggles.

Author and anthropologist Hurston introduced the history and culture of her hometown to the world through her book Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. About 10 years after Hurston’s death, Alice Walker rediscovered her work, and reintroduced it to the world in the 1970s.

As a way to honor Hurston and stimulate the local economy, the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. established the Zora! Festival — an arts and literary event that attracts more than 30,000 people annually — which economically benefits the community, said N.Y. Nathari, the executive director who was raised in the town. The organization, established in 1987, has been at the forefront of preserving and promoting Eatonville. Authors such as Walker and Toni Morrison have attended the annual festival.

“They’re talking about economic development here, but we’ve been doing this for 30 years,” she said. “I am confident we’re going to get the land back. We are for the Eatonville Renaissance … to revitalize and economically develop Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown.”

Orange County has not always been successful in taking over the town’s resources because residents kept fighting, Nathari said. Some earlier attempts include transforming the elementary school into a bus depot and removing churches. In 1987, the county proposed a five-lane highway that would have run through the center of the town, but after residents rallied against it, it became a two-lane road, now known as Kennedy Boulevard.

“I understood that there are three ways that you can destroy a community, you can take out the school, you can take out the religious institutions, or you can insert a road,” Nathari said. “This is really about economics.”

Whether the land sale moves forward or not, similarly to newly freed people post-Civil War, Livatt – the longtime resident – and the others aren’t going to back down.  

“We’ve never laid down. Eatonville is not supposed to look like other towns. We’re not supposed to have high-rise apartments. They’re trying to take advantage of our property again. Just give us the rest of the land back,” Livatt said. “This thing is bigger than Eatonville. This is about the whole United States of America, and what the hell are we supposed to be standing for in the first place.”

This story has been updated.

Aallyah Wright is Capital B's rural issues reporter. Twitter @aallyahpatrice