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An Important First Step: Eatonville Residents Applaud Council Decision to Reconsider Use of Historic Property

Council vote ends rezoning effort of historic Hungerford Property, home of profound educational legacy in one of the oldest Black-incorporated municipalities in the United States  

EATONVILLE, Fla. — On Tuesday, Feb. 7, the Town Council of Eatonville, Florida, voted against land use changes that would clear the way for the development of the historic Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School Property (Hungerford Property), a move opposed by longtime residents.  

The municipal ordinances rejected by the Council, on a 4-1 vote, would have enacted zoning changes and amendments to the town’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan that would have facilitated Orange County Public Schools’ sale of the 100-acre Hungerford Property to private interests for the construction of a mixed-use development.  

At the Feb. 7 council meeting, the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.) objected to the ordinances on the basis that the proposed mixed-use development would dominate Eatonville in terms of land area and ownership, erase Eatonville’s 135-year history, and price current residents out of the community. 

“The P.E.C. (Association to Preserve Eatonville Community) is very pleased with the Eatonville Town Council’s decision not to rezone the historic Hungerford Property," said N. Y. Nathiri, P.E.C.'s executive director. "This decision by the Town Council is an important first step in a process for the community to plan for 'Good Development,' of the historic Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School property that will ensure economic prosperity for the Eatonville of today and for Eatonville's posterity.” 

“Today was a real win for democracy. We were thrilled to see so many Eatonville residents make their voices heard. Through the grassroots organizing of the P.E.C. and other organizations, this community came together in a major way and pushed back against what they perceived as an existential threat, forcing their elected leaders to reconsider the best use of this historic property,” said SPLC senior staff attorney, Malissa Williams. “Now that this crucial vote is over, we will continue to support the P.E.C.’s efforts to return this sacred ground back to the people of Eatonville.” 

While the council rejected the proposed zoning and comprehensive plan changes, the contract between OCPS and the developers remains in place. Under that proposal, the private development firm could still purchase the Hungerford Property from OCPS. However, the developer would have to modify its current proposal to conform to the town’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan in its current form. 

OCPS and the developer proposed zoning and comprehensive plan changes that would have allowed the developer to construct 350 residential housing units consisting of multi-family and single-family homes, along with commercial, office and retail space. The plan would engulf a substantial portion of the 1.6 square miles that make up the Eatonville community, where 73% of residents are Black and span generations.  

“The school that once occupied the Hungerford property, like the rest of the town, was founded by newly freed people with a vision of full citizenship and prosperity. By OCPS selling this land to developers, this action will strip away from the people of Eatonville the ability to enjoy economic development that aligns with its rich history, heritage, and culture,” commented Nathiri. “By selling this land, OCPS would be guilty of economic injustice. The development would devour the inheritance that Eatonville Founders intended for their posterity.” 

In 1897, graduates from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and others established the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, a private boarding school that provided educational opportunities to African American children at that time. OCPS purchased the Hungerford Property in 1951, under a deed restriction that the school would continue to be used to educate Black children. With the deed restriction now rescinded, OCPS seeks to sell this historic land to a private development group for $14.6 million.  

Founded in 1887 during Reconstruction, Eatonville is one of the first all-Black towns in America to be incorporated by freedmen and was the home of renowned Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. The P.E.C. envisions a renaissance of the Hungerford Property that will center cultural, educational and tourism experiences that honor the history of the community and the legacy of the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School. 

Activists and citizens groups established websites opposing the sale of the historic property with an online petition receiving more than 1,800 signatures. 

“The contract with the developer was the catalyst, it was the wake-up call, in terms of the need to be much more proactive, much more aggressive in terms of protecting the town’s history and its future,” said Nathiri. “We call on Orange County Public Schools to hear the voices of our community who are overwhelmingly against this development. The school board held this land in trust for the benefit of the children of the Town of Eatonville for more than 75 years and this sale violates that public trust. The only way to move forward is for the land to be given back to the community so that the people can ensure any future development will protect Eatonville’s heritage and ensure its future.”