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Historic Action: Developer of Black heritage site in Florida backs out of sales contract

Residents of Eatonville, Florida, had their voices heard when the private developer that was seeking to build on the site of a historic school for Black children elected to terminate the sales contract on the property.

The notice terminating the sales contract, sent by the developer on March 31 to Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), which owns the Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School property, was the latest and largest win in efforts to preserve Black history threatened by commercial development on the site.

“[The developer’s] decision clears the way for this historic land to be preserved and used to benefit the citizens of Eatonville today and in the future,” said N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.), a local preservation organization. “As Eatonville residents, we are best positioned to determine future development of the land to ensure generations-long economic prosperity, and we urge Orange County Public Schools to return the property to a community trust.”

Earlier last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a suit on behalf of P.E.C. against the school board of OCPS over its planned sale of most of the last 100 acres of the property.

In February, Eatonville residents had won another key victory when the town council voted 4-1 against rezoning the property, which would have cleared the way for the massive redevelopment to move forward. The proposal called for building more than 300 residential housing units, both multi-family and single-family, along with extensive commercial, office and retail space, on a tract that makes up close to 15% of the 1.6-square-mile town that is 6 miles north of Orlando.

OCPS said in a statement to the media last week that it would work with residents to determine the site’s future.

“Residents, not developers, are best able to determine and use the land in a way that benefits the community while honoring its legacy,” said Kirsten Anderson, the SPLC’s deputy legal director of economic justice and P.E.C. counsel. “The Orange County School Board must meet their obligations to ensure this land is used for educational or related purposes, preserving this historic property and allowing the community to appropriately plan for its future development.”

Founded in 1887 during Reconstruction, Eatonville was one of the first towns in the U.S. to be incorporated by freedmen and the home of renowned Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston.

In 1897, with help from Booker T. Washington and others, the town’s Black leaders established the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School for the education of African American students, who otherwise were afforded few, if any, educational opportunities due to their race. 

Photo at top: A developer has terminated its sales contract for the Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School property in Eatonville, Florida, after residents and preservationists expressed concern that the proposed development would erase the history of the historically Black community. (Credit:

Read more about the effort to preserve Black history in Eatonville, Florida: