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
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
T-U: Your organization wasn't originally created to organize
the festival, but to combat the widening of Kennedy Boulevard,
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
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
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. …