ORLANDO, Fla. – On Wednesday, July 12, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed an amended complaint in state court against the Orange County Public School (OCPS) Board to include a new plaintiff in the case of The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc., v. School Board of Orange County, Florida.
New co-plaintiff, Bea Leach Hatler, is the direct descendant of the original donors of the property in Eatonville, Florida. Hatler is the great-granddaughter of Robert Hungerford, for whom the school was named and operated as an academic institution for over 100 years.
“My family’s intention for the land was clear,” said Ms. Hatler. “My great-grandfather’s vision was that of education. He would be appalled at attempts to strip the land away from the people of Eatonville. The property was conveyed to the Orange County School Board for the express purpose of education and that should be honored. The public has spoken time and time again. We just need the School Board to listen to the people of Eatonville.”
In 1899, Hatler’s great-great-grandparents, Edward C. Hungerford and Anna D. Hungerford, donated the inaugural 40 acres of land to the Hungerford School public charitable trust to establish a coeducational private school in Eatonville for the education of African American children. At its founding, the school was called the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School. Over time, the Hungerfords would donate a total of 160 acres to the trust, in memoriam of their son Robert Hungerford, a physician who treated African American children in the post-Reconstruction South.
“I join the people of Eatonville in advocating for activities on the Hungerford property aimed at educating the public on the town’s culture and heritage,” continued Hatler. “We urge Orange County Public Schools to transfer the property to a community trust so that the land can be preserved and developed in a way that retains its historical integrity.”
SPLC first filed complaint in March 2023, on behalf of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C). The complaint alleges that OCPS, the Hungerford property’s current owner, failed to comply with its legal duties to safeguard the land for educational purposes. Prior to the suit, OCPS had planned to sell most of the nearly 100-acre parcel to a private developer for the purpose of building a mixed-use residential/commercial development. After vigorous community opposition, the developer terminated the agreement to purchase the land. The School Board has not yet made a decision about the future use of the property.
“Although there is no pending sale of the property, there continues to be a legal dispute over this land that the Orange County School Board 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 attorney for P.E.C. and Ms. Hatler. “This lawsuit asks the court find that OCPS is not free to simply abandon its obligations to ensure that this land is used for educational or other related purposes in the public interest.”
The P.E.C. remains as a co-plaintiff in the suit against OCPS. The P.E.C. recently responded to the Funding Form released by the Orange County Tourist Development Tax (TDT) Citizen Advisory Task Force and projected it would require an $87,857,524 investment by Orange County Government over a 10-year span to help develop the ZORA! Campus on approximately 23 acres of the almost 100-acre Hungerford property. The Campus would include the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum Complex, a 1,000-person capacity conference center, and a STEM lab & learning center.
“The community of Eatonville has its own vision for how this land can be developed responsibly while still safeguarding the original charitable purpose of the Hungerfords and the other donors who made the town a beacon of educational excellence,” said N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. “The School Board has an opportunity to work with our community to chart a new path forward if it chooses.”