The Rev. Darryl Johnson rejoiced when he received a text message that a deal to sell the remaining 100 acres of the historic Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School property in Eatonville, Florida, fell through a week ago.
After hearing the news that a developer dropped out of the controversial plan to buy the land, the former mayor of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, immediately texted N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc., to congratulate her for “sticking in there and playing the role they had to play.”
Johnson remembers all too well the challenges of keeping a historic Black town afloat. Oftentimes, Black towns — mostly small, rural, and isolated — go overlooked, leaving them struggling to get adequate funding. This is one of the reasons Johnson and four mayors, including Eatonville’s, created in 2013 the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, a collective of Black leaders nationwide focused on preserving and promoting the history and culture of their towns while creating economic development and enhancing quality of life.
Eatonville residents’ battle with the Orange County school board represents that the centuries-old fight isn’t over and illustrates the “strength and pride in the African American community to protect our history.”
“What you just saw out there in Eatonville shows you don’t mess with our towns,” Johnson said.
Some scholars suggest that between 200 and 1,200 historic Black towns were established in the 19th and 20th centuries. There isn’t a comprehensive list of historic Black towns; however, Atyia Martin, a researcher on historic Black towns and executive director of Next Leadership Development, a nonprofit focused on strengthening resilience and leadership in Black communities, created a project that hopes to quantify the number of Black towns and settlements in the U.S.
Only about 30 Black historic towns exist today, according to Martin.
Racial violence, restrictive laws, and land loss contributed to the decimation of these towns, created as safe havens for formerly enslaved African Americans.
What are historic Black towns?
Historic Black towns or villages, often interchangeable with freedmen’s towns, are municipalities started by or for Black communities after the Civil War. Black towns served as refuge for formerly enslaved African Americans who desired political independence, economic advancement, and liberation from racial oppression.
As a result of the Great Migration, most of the towns emerged in the West, Midwest, and North. It was easier to obtain land, secure a job, and escape the Jim Crow South. On the contrary, some Black people moved to the South to build their “safe havens,” said Cathryn Stout, a researcher, educator, and scholar of American cultural history based in Memphis, Tennessee. Such towns include Kinloch, Missouri; Quakertown, Texas; Hobson City, Alabama; and Princeville, North Carolina.
While it was difficult for formerly enslaved people to navigate the concept of freedom, some were able to thrive. They purchased homes and land, received an education, and worked jobs. Eventually, they were able to serve in public office and exercise their right to vote.
“These are important spaces historically and culturally because this is where we often saw our thriving Black business districts, our first Black-owned banks, our top athletes coming from these places where they had the protection of their community,” Stout said. “When we talk about a Black mecca, we think of Harlem, so kids learn about the Harlem Renaissance. When I taught high school English, I always told my kids, “It’s bigger than Harlem.”
But, the towns, particularly in the South, struggled with poverty, racial violence, and restrictive laws such as the Black codes, which limited land and employment opportunities for Black people. Agencies meant to help Black folks during this time, such as the Freedmen’s Bureau, were dismantled by the federal government. The Freedmen’s Bureau, created by Congress, existed to help Black folks transition from slavery to freedom.
In addition to the laws, white supremacists targeted Black communities, burning down their towns, churches, and businesses. Government officials also took part in destroying these towns. One example: Oscarville, Georgia.
In 1912, more than 1,000 Black people lived in Oscarville, a bustling farming community and the only Black town in Forsyth County. Threatened by Black progress, five Black men were suspects of an alleged rape and killing of a white woman. One of the Black men, Robert Edwards, was arrested, and was killed by a white mob that “dragged his body from the jailhouse and hung him from a telephone pole in the town.” After this, white supremacists amped up their violent attacks, forcing residents to leave or murdering them for refusing not to.
Years later, the U.S. government obtained land — some of which Black people owned in Oscarville — to build Lake Lanier, a tourist destination and water source to metro Atlanta. “Some say when it came to building Lake Lanier in the 1950s, the area was specifically chosen to cover up the town to silently remove the history from the area,” reported the Dawson County News.
One of the most common reasons for the decline of Black towns is the allegation of criminality, Martin said, “which will lead white folks coming into those towns and destroying it.”
Irma McClaurin, an anthropologist, DEI consultant, and founder of the Black Feminist Archive, said there’s always been an intentionality of destroying Black land or displacing Black families because of white America’s failure to reckon and acknowledge the wrongdoings and existence of slavery.
“Appropriation of Black land and Black material culture has always been at the heart of white America,” she said. “The more that you can erase the physicality, the material culture, [and] the material evidence that a people were here — that they actually had built something, that they had actually done something — then it’s very hard to make the case that this land needs to be preserved. We stand as the body of evidence. We are the body of evidence of America’s stain of that history that it wants to forget.”
What are the present-day challenges?
In the case of Eatonville, Orange County Public Schools planned to sell the remaining land that was affiliated with the Robert Hungerford school, a former private boarding school built on 300 acres for Black students in 1897. Residents like Nathiri feared the proposed development, which includes hundreds of homes, could price them out and destroy the town’s history.
On behalf of Nathiri’s organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit on March 24 to block the sale. A week after the complaint was filed, the developer, Sovereign Land Co., terminated the contract with the school district to purchase the land, a temporary win for the Eatonville community, residents say.
Experts told Capital B some towns face other barriers, including gentrification, environmental racism, and limited funding for aging infrastructure. In Randolph, Arizona, and Mossville, Louisiana, their towns have dried up from environmental harm by power or chemical plant expansions. In Princeville, North Carolina, residents are struggling to recover from flooding from hurricanes over the past few years.
Another obstacle, in some places, is gentrification and the ability to generate revenue from homeownership, said Mark Little, executive director of NCGrowth, an initiative building shared prosperity through applied interventions, research, and policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Homeownership is one of the assets to acquire wealth; however, white homeownership rates remain significantly higher than Black rates. Gentrification, redlining, and investors buying homes have all contributed to this disparity. The negative perceptions and racial bias toward Black homeowners devalues their investments, thus pushing residents out of these towns, Little said, referencing the potential of neighboring Orlando, Florida, pressuring homeowners in Eatonville to sell their homes.
Other issues: economic development, job creation, and infrastructure. Water, broadband access, and land access are all components community members say they don’t have in their town, said Cymone Davis, a former town manager of Tullahassee, Oklahoma, and founder of Black Towns Municipal Management, which helps Black towns with community redevelopment and government infrastructure.
“If a town loses their land, or certain services that the town provides, they then can lose and dissolve a township,” she said. “It’s a very daunting task of imagining rebuilding a Black town for today’s economy for today’s people, historic townships. They are on the brink of survival, and they’re struggling to remain sustainable.”
To improve these conditions, some leaders and organizations are lobbying for state and federal funding, donations, and networking across the country, Davis said. In some towns, locals are focusing on cultural tourism to jumpstart revitalization efforts, despite lack of systemic and structural support. It gives them agency over their history and pathway to bring in revenue, Martin said.
What are the towns doing to move forward?
In Mound Bayou, the town opened a museum to tell the local and state history, hoping to empower other cities. In Hobson City, a town without a grocery store, Aussie Mart, a small convenience and snack shop, recently opened. A development group worked with the town to construct a $50,000 playground for youth.
In order to make development work, Davis said, developers must invest in the people first, not just the land. Also, the right political leadership must be in place to make the best financial decisions. Whether it’s protection from climate change or preserving their existence, it’s also about protecting communities from predatory behaviors, Martin added.
“With people bungeeing in and out, developers prospecting in these towns, the caution is that there are a lot of people who will make money off of Black towns and that money isn’t getting passed through to Black towns,” she said.
Since developers nixed the deal with Orange County Public Schools, the school board doesn’t plan to pursue any other bids and wants to collaborate with the Eatonville community moving forward, a local news station reported. Organizers such as Julian Johnson, a native of Eatonville and founder of Land Back 1887, remain skeptical of the school board’s intention.
“We don’t care to do any business with Orange County Public Schools. They don’t even respect us enough as a community to even want to do business, so I know that’s another power control. … It’s just the system of white supremacy,” Julian Johnson said.
People across the country have reached out to support them on the ground, but to effectively take advantage of the resources, the community has to get organized, he said. So, he, along with the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, are educating the residents on affordable housing, land development, and existing programs in the community.
“We won this battle, and I am excited about winning that battle, but we got more work to do,” he said.
This story has been updated to reflect that there are approximately 30 historic Black towns in existence, according to a historian.