When the school board in Orange County, Florida, planned to sell property that was the site of a historic school for Black children in one of the country’s oldest Black communities, a local preservation association represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit against the school board.
The litigation by the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. (P.E.C.) was filed to protect Black history threatened by a massive commercial redevelopment of the historic Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School in Eatonville, one of the first American towns incorporated by newly emancipated Black people. The lawsuit asks the state court to ensure that the land continues to be used for educational and related purposes that benefit the community, once home to Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston.
The school was established with the assistance of Booker T. Washington and the leaders of Eatonville in 1897. It was modeled on the famed Black educator’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which is now Tuskegee University, in Alabama. The high school remained open until 2009.
In 1951, the Orange County school board acquired the Hungerford property – over 300 acres – through contested court proceedings. In a deed restriction that came with the land, use of the property was restricted to the operation of a public school for the education of Black children.
The new lawsuit asks a state court to declare that the 1951 deed restriction is valid and remains in effect on the remaining portion of the property and that the release of the deed restriction in 2022 – which cleared the way for Orange County Public Schools 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.
The litigation by the P.E.C. came after residents of Eatonville won a key victory when the town council voted 4-1 against rezoning the Hungerford property, which would have cleared the way for a private developer to construct a mixed-use development – including residential, commercial and retail – on the site.
The P.E.C.’s objections to the developer’s proposal raised concerns that the development would create a lack of affordable housing, increase traffic and fail to account for increased infrastructure needs. The association also asserted that the development lacked attention to historic and cultural preservation that would directly impact P.E.C. and its mission.
On March 31, 2023, one week after the P.E.C. filed its lawsuit, the private developer notified the school district that it was electing to terminate the sales contract on the Hungerford property, ending that development project.
The P.E.C.’s action against the school board is currently pending in Florida state court.