As America celebrates Black History Month it is often overlooked how the country got here. The sacrifices of some are known. What is less known is the history of places that were established as black towns just after slavery and the civil war ended in this country. One of those towns is Eatonville. The little town just outside of Orlando is widely considered to be the first black municipality in the United States. Established on August 15, 1887 Eatonville has lasted for well over one hundred years.
Let’s go back to for a minute. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation in 1863, newly freed African-Americans came to Central Florida in search of new lives. They came to plant citrus groves, clear land, and work as housekeepers in the area. Their arrival was significant enough for a group of ex-Union soldiers to consider selling the new arrivals land for the creation of their own town. The leader of this idea was Josiah C. Eaton. Mr. Eaton, who was the Mayor of Maitland, Florida which borders what is known now as Eatonville, thought it would be wise to give the African-Americans in the area their own lands in order to separate the two areas. Mr. Eaton had come to the area from Maine during the civil war and after bought land. At the time small African-American communities were being established as “race colonies”, places where black people were independent and governed themselves just outside of the white towns they worked in. A businessman by the name of Joseph C. Clarke bought 112 acres of land to sell to blacks in the area thus creating Eatonville which was named after the lands previous owner and benefactor.
As the country goes through what some have called a divisive period, it is important that the understanding and compassion shown by both Mr. Clarke and Mr. Eaton does not go into the forgotten annuls of history. Eatonville is a shining example of what happens when neighbors put aside differences to better the world they share. The most famous of Eatonville’s residents Ms. Zora Neal Hurston once said, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer them”. America may never heal all the wounds of its past but may the spirit of Eatonville live in the words of its second most famous resident, NFL Hall of Famer David “Deacon” Jones who once said, “It took me a long time to figure out that the real big time success comes from taking lots of small, ordinary steps in the right direction. And you can’t ever take the next step until you take the first”.