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Eatonville

Exploring the Rich Heritage of America's Oldest Black Municipality

African American history has such an incredibly powerful, resilient, and often creatively talented foothold in our society. It’s a story of resilience and determination: an impressive testament to the will of incredible people. 

Out of slavery and the crushing repression of Jim Crow society came a community of powerful, vibrant artists–and many of those people helped form the cultural backbone of Central Florida. Here are a few notable places and stories from black history, all located just 15 minutes north of Orlando.

Eatonville

Established in 1887 and named after Captain Josiah C. Eaton, a union naval officer who helped broker the town, Eatonville is famous for being one of the first all-Black, self-governing towns in the United States. Added to the US National Register of Historic Places in 1998, it’s been home to many iconic figures in African American history, including football safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, author and poet Zora Neale Hurston, football defensive end Deacon Jones, and actor and singer Norm Lewis.

The town contains 48 historic buildings, including Moseley House Museum and the now-closed KOHA Club (Formerly “Club Eaton”). 

Club Eaton and the Chitlin Circuit

It’s difficult these days to overstate the incredible influence black culture has had on the music industry at large. In nearly every genre, the notes and melodies of jazz and blues artists can be heard, weaving their way through modern chord progressions and soulful voices.

Florida, in particular, proudly stands as the birthplace of many famous African American musicians, from Ray Charles and Sam Moore to T-Pain, Flo Rida, and Jason Derulo.

Back in the 1940s, however, southern segregation brought many difficulties for black performers. Jim Crow laws, which weren’t abolished until 1965, prohibited black artists from playing in many white clubs, and so, out of this repression bloomed The Chitlin Circuit: an initially underground collection of “black-friendly” bars, dancehalls, barns, nightclubs, concert halls, and restaurants throughout the United States. 

The Theater Owners Booking Agency (TOBA), which booked black entertainers, was formed in 1909 and helped formally organize the Chitlin Circuit. While association didn’t make it through the difficulties of the Great Depression, its positive influence on black entertainment was indisputable.

One of the most famous venues along the route was Central Florida’s very own Club Eaton. The club opened its doors in 1946: just a year after WWII and only 59 short years after the town itself was established.


 

It was a simple and cramped 40x40’ building with an outdoor bathroom, but it attracted famous artists from all over. It was also classy despite its simplicity: Club Eaton had a strict dress code, requiring men to turn up in coats and ties and women to wear dresses. 

Club Eaton’s roster was star-studded, boasting names like Duke Ellington, BB King, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Cab Calloway. 

The club had rooms on the second floor where the performers would stay–a key safety measure for the time, as many white-owned hotels wouldn’t allow black performers to stay the night.

Club Eaton was run by Billy Bozeman for 49 years until he sold it to E.L. Bing in 1983. Bing rebranded it to “Mr. B’s Club,” and invested over $100k in renovations before reopening in 1985, turning it into a massive, 10,000 square foot, multi-level venue. 

Eventually, the club changed hands again and was dubbed “Heroes’ Night Club,” and then again to “Club KOHA.” Sadly, it closed its doors in 2008 after being fined and penalized for serving alcohol after hours.

The building is still there today, with a plaque on the wall honoring its rich history.

Zora Neale Hurston

To speak of Eatonville without giving a nod to Zora Neale Hurston is impossible. The renowned author used Eatonville and neighboring areas throughout Central Florida as the backdrop to much of her work, including her international best-seller, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Established in 1990, the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts (known as “The Hurston”) hosts exhibits for African-American artists. 

In 2004, a library was also opened in Hurston’s name.

Robert Hungerford Preparatory School

Robert Hungerford, a white doctor from Maitland who dedicated his life to teaching local black men reading and writing, was one of the key people responsible for pushing literacy among freed slaves in Eatonville.

In 1889, Russell and Mary Calhoun founded the Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School in Hungerford’s honor. The school taught a number of subjects, and life skills, including cooking, housekeeping, blacksmithing, agriculture, gardening, and more. Eventually, mechanical drawing and radio production were also added to the curriculum.

Robert Hungerford Prep stayed private until 1950, when courts turned it over to Orange County as part of a public trust. It remained open until 2009. Today, Eatonville students attend schools in neighboring areas.

The Hannibal Square Quilters

A charming section of historic Winter Park, Hannibal Square is a veritable patchwork of lively restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. 

While it’s a fully integrated community today, Hannibal Square was originally established in 1881 as an African American community for families that worked the South Florida Railroad. Then, in 1887, residents crossed the tracks to vote and elect two African American aldermen. They served from 1887 to 1893.

At the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, you can find gorgeous “storytelling quilts” made by The Hannibal Square Story Quilters, an organization founded and led by expert quilter and artist Lauren Austin.

The quilts are designed to reflect the Black experience, femininity, and spirituality. Austin even teaches free quilting classes for visitors, in partnership with the Crealdé School of Art.

Tinker Field

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr stood on Tinker Field, which at the time boasted a baseball stadium built in 1923. There, he performed one of his stirring speeches: coveted now as profound markers of the Civil Rights movement.

The field was added to the US National Register of Historic Places in 2004. Though the baseball stadium closed its doors 8 years ago, the location is now used for larger events, like the very popular Electric Daisy Carnival (or, “EDC”). 

Out of slavery and the crushing repression of Jim Crow society came a community of powerful, vibrant artists–and many of those people helped form the cultural backbone of Central Florida.

Renowned author Zora Neale Hurston used Eatonville and neighboring areas throughout Central Florida as the backdrop to much of her work, including her international best-seller, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Kara Adamo is a UX designer and Copywriter by day - pyrography artist, author, and illustrator by night. Her artistic prowess includes woodburning, pet portraits, children's books, food illustrations, coloring books, ornaments, & family portraits.

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