Community Works to Preserve History Cultural Reminders Key to Success in Eatonville

Article excerpt

In 1930s Eatonville, Zora Neale Hurston lived just across the

lake from N.Y. Nathiri's grandmother. And although Nathiri --

founder of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival -- never read one of

Hurston's books until she was 25, she grew up with Hurston's

stories and folktales as part of the daily life in a small black

town.

But she took the richness of that life for granted until the

fall of 1987.

That was when the county government decided to widen the town's

center street to five lanes to provide a shortcut for Orlando

commuters, a move that Nathiri believed would destroy the oldest

incorporated municipality founded by African-Americans.

The community's fight against the road led to the creation of

the Preserve the Eatonville Community, a historic preservation

organization that runs the Hurston festival and other programs.

The Times-Union's Sharon Weightman talked to Nathiri after the

January festival.

T-U: Your organization wasn't originally created to organize

the festival, but to combat the widening of Kennedy Boulevard,

right?

Nathiri: Yes, the road was a catalyst to waking us up. We had

just celebrated Eatonville's centennial in August and the road

project would have destroyed the very ideals that had been

celebrated. So we had to become more active in preserving the

community.

T-U: But after you succeeded, you didn't stop?

Nathiri: We didn't want to take on a negative posture -- our

mission was not "stop the road," but "preserve Eatonville." From

the beginning we didn't see ourselves as having one job and one

job only. The historicity of Eatonville, the name of Zora Neale

Hurston, was not known and appreciated in our own home county.

That's why we had to take on the role of aggressively preserving

for future generations the community culture that Eatonville

represented.

T-U: Has the festival helped keep Eatonville alive?

Nathiri: Because of the experience of the Hurston festival, we

can say with credibility what we were saying all along -- the

economic future of Eatonville is wrapped up in the history of

this community. It brings tens of thousands of people at one

time -- as well as people coming throughout the year -- to learn

about what Eatonville represents. …