Complaint seeks economic justice for residents concerned about land development that could price out homes and destroy the cultural impact of one of America's oldest African American towns
EATONVILLE, Fla. — On Friday, Mar. 24, the Southern Poverty Law Center SPLC filed a complaint in state court against the Orange County Public School Board on behalf of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.). The complaint challenges the School Board's imminent sale of the last 100 acres of the historic Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School property for the purpose of mixed-use development, something the majority of Eatonville residents oppose.
“Orange County Public Schools should not be serving as a conduit for private real estate developers seeking financial gain,” said N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. “Instead, Orange County Public Schools should ensure that the legacy of the historic Robert Hungerford High School property is preserved and used to benefit the citizens of Eatonville today and in the future. If this sale is allowed to proceed, the rich culture and heritage of the town that Zora Neale Hurston popularized around the world as 'the first incorporated African American community in the United States' will be erased.”
P.E.C.’s objections to the developer’s proposal raised concerns about the proposed commercial and residential uses of the land creating a lack of affordable housing, increasing traffic, failing to account for increased infrastructure needs, and lacking attention to historic and cultural preservation that will directly impact P.E.C. and its mission.
“We support good development,” continued Nathiri. “Our 21st-century vision is one of an ‘Eatonville Renaissance’ that fosters economic prosperity for our community. Instead of selling the historic Robert Hungerford High School Campus, we welcome its return to a community trust. At that point, Eatonville residents can engage in a strategic community planning process that provides for education and training, and that makes the property attractive to a high-value business enterprise, which would add to Eatonville's tax base for generations-long economic prosperity.”
In 1951, the School Board acquired the Hungerford property – over 300 acres – through contested court proceedings. In a deed restriction that came with the land, the School Board’s use of the Hungerford property was restricted to the operation of a public school for the education of Black children.
P.E.C.’s lawsuit seeks 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 lawsuit also seeks a declaration that the School Board failed to comply with its obligations under state law to determine whether the property is unnecessary for educational purposes and that its disposal is in the best interests of the public.
“OCPS is seeking to profit off the sale of land that it holds in trust for the benefit of the community, specifically the children of the town of Eatonville,” said Kirsten Anderson, SPLC Deputy Legal Director of Economic Justice and P.E.C. counsel. “This lawsuit asks the court to intervene and find that OCPS is not free to simply abandon its obligations to ensure that this land is used for educational or other related purposes.”
“The many residents of Eatonville who oppose this sale must be heard and taken seriously. Through grassroots organizing, this community is pushing back against what they perceive as an existential threat,” said Malissa Williams, SPLC Senior Staff Attorney.
On Feb. 7, 2023, the Town Council voted against zoning changes and amendments to the town's 2018 Comprehensive Plan that would have facilitated OCPS' sale of the 100-acre property to a private development firm.
Founded in 1887 during Reconstruction, Eatonville is one of the first towns in America 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, Black leaders of the town established on the site at issue 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.
About the Southern Poverty Law Center
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, www.splcenter.org.