Magazine article Humanities

Zora's Place

Magazine article Humanities

Zora's Place

Article excerpt

ON A MID-AUGUST DAY WITH A HEAT index of 115 degrees, in a rental car with slow pickup, I drive through the Orlando suburbs searching for Eatonville, a three-square-mile town of 2,400 residents. I keep getting lost. Finally a brown "Eatonville Historic District" sign appears, and fifteen miles later it dawns on me that I have gone too far, I turn back, find the city limits, and enter Eatonville. At the "Welcome to Maitland" sign, I realize I have driven through the entire town. It took three minutes.

It may be small and hard to find, but Eatonville is important for two reasons: It was the first all-black incorporated town in the United States, and it was the childhood home of Zora Neale Hurston. Much of Hurston's writing is set here, and many of her characters are thinly disguised versions of actual residents. Eatonville gave Hurston her best material, and a few years ago, the favor was returned. The Hurston connection gave Eatonville an argument to save itself from being paved over. Hurston and Eatonville have always been closely linked: to understand one, you have to understand the other.

Formed after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Eatonville was named after Josiah Eaton, a white army captain living in Maitland. During Maitland's first civic election, a black man, Joe Clarke, was elected town marshal. As Hurston tells it in her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, "I do not know whether it was the numerical superiority of the Negroes, or whether some of the Whites, out of deep feeling, threw their votes to the Negro side." A year later, Clarke decided to create a separate all-black town, and Eaton supported him, as did Lewis Lawrence, a white philanthropist from New York City. Land was donated, then a church and a town hall were built. In Dust Tracks Hurston tells it this way: "On August 18, 1886, the Negro town . . . received its charter of incorporation from the state capital at Tallahassee, and made history by becoming the first of its kind in America, and perhaps in the world. So, in a raw, bustling frontier, the experiment of self-government for Negroes was tried. White Maitland and Negro Eatonville have lived side by side for fifty-five years without a single instance of enmity."

Hurston is emphatic about her start in Eatonville and its identity as a black town. In Dust Tracks she stated that she "was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black back-side of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town - charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all."

Actually, Hurston was born in Alabama. The family moved to Eatonville when Zora was one year old, after her father, John, heard of the town and its opportunities for African Americans. He bought five acres and built an eight-room house. Hurston's childhood was full of children playing outside, homegrown food, and fishing. Hers was not a struggling family. The town was dominated by churches, but its hub was Joe Clarke's store, "the heart and spring of the town."

Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouths. The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions. Women stood around there on Saturday nights and had it proven to the community that their husbands were good providers, put all of his money in his wife's hands and generally glorified her. Or right there before everybody it was revealed that he was keeping some other woman by the things the other woman was allowed to buy on his account. No doubt a few men found that their wives had a brand-new pair of shoes oftener than he could afford it, and wondered what she did with her time while he was off at work. Sometimes he didn't have to wonder. There were no discreet nuances of life on Joe Clarke's porch. There was open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at. …

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