Media Resource

Why Here?: Eatonville, Florida and Zora Neale Hurston

Eatonville City Council members, 1907
Photo caption

Eatonville City Council members in 1907.

Eatonville is the oldest all-Black town in the United States. Incorporated in 1887 by twenty-seven Black men, the town served as a beacon of freedom and autonomy to Black Floridians and other Black Southerners living through the racial violence and oppression of the Reconstruction era. The town’s St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and Robert Hungerford Industrial School upheld and passed down the values and practices of self-governance espoused by Eatonville’s founders. Eatonville was also the childhood home of author, anthropologist, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston’s upbringing in Eatonville shaped the questions and perspectives she brought to her literary work and research.  

This Media Resource introduces students to Eatonville’s history and Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work. Guiding questions, video interviews, and other digital materials offer insight into Hurston’s life and Eatonville’s significance as an early and lasting pillar of Black Southern culture and folkways. These resources also offer strategies for incorporating place-based pedagogy into history, literature, and civics lessons. You can also learn more about Zora Neale Hurston’s life and writings through the numerous other NEH-supported projects.

The Founding of Eatonville, Florida

Eatonville, Florida became the first Black-incorporated municipality in the United States in 1887. Founded by 27 Black voters in the wake of emancipation and Reconstruction, the town represented Black self-determination. The town's newspaper proclaimed in 1889 that the residents of Eatonville had “solve[d] the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by Negroes.” Life in Eatonville centered around the St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the Hungerford Normal and Industrial School.

In this video, scholars discuss Eatonville’s founding, contextualizing its founders, institutions, and community-building efforts in the broader history of Black freedom struggles in the South.  

Guiding Questions: 

  • How did the founding of Black towns like Eatonville shape the meaning of freedom for Black people after emancipation? Why was autonomy important to Eatonville’s founders and residents? 

  • What was the significance of voting to the founding of Eatonville?  

  • How did Black towns like Eatonville shape the struggle for civil rights during and after Reconstruction? 

Zora Neale Hurston’s Life and Literature

Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville and claimed the town as her birthplace, despite being born in Notasulga, Alabama. Eatonville provides the backdrop for much of Hurston’s literary work. In this video, scholars describe how Eatonville influenced Hurston’s views on desegregation and her reputation as an author.

Guiding Questions: 

  • Why did Hurston choose to make Eatonville the setting for many of her literary works? 

  • How did Eatonville shape Hurston’s perspective on other places in the U.S. and abroad? 

  • What do we learn by studying the relationship between someone’s home and their worldview? 

Why Eatonville?

Eatonville remains a majority-Black town today. Responding in part to urban renewal and other challenges to the town’s infrastructure and governance, Eatonville residents have worked for decades to preserve their town’s history. The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (PEC) was founded in 1987 to support the community’s “heritage, historical, and cultural resources.” In this video, scholars reflect on Eatonville’s legacies and the value of preserving and studying the town’s history today.

Guiding Questions: 

  • What has community autonomy meant to Eatonville residents, historically and now? 

  • What can we learn from Eatonville residents’ efforts to preserve their community and heritage? 

Studying and Teaching Place

The "Jump at the Sun" Landmarks program offers a model for using place-based inquiry to teach civics, history, literature, and a variety of other subjects. In this video, scholars discuss how Zora Neale Hurston’s interdisciplinary perspectives can serve as a template for teaching the relationships between the past and present through a place.

 What other historical places are they not aware of? What other historical places can they engage with that used to exist or still exist today? And what does that mean? Whether they've been erased or they've been ignored?” Allison Mitchell, Eatonville scholar, University of Virginia 

Guiding Questions:

  • How can we engage Zora Neale Hurston’s approaches—studying music, folklore, and culture and writing fiction and nonfiction works—to study our own communities? 

  • How have the places you’ve lived shaped your identity and interests? 

Related Resources

The following resources can be used to further explore Hurston’s life and the legacy of Eatonville and other Black towns in the United States. 

Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive: The University of Central Florida offers a rich collection of resources on Hurston's work as an author, anthropologist, and historian, including a database of manuscripts, media resources, and teaching materials. 

Zora Neale Hurston—They Dared!: The above biographical video from Alabama Public Television provides a visual look at her remarkable life and the legacy of her work as a folklorist, author, anthropologist, and documentary filmmaker.

"What Zora Went Looking For": Author Charles King offers a look at Zora Neale's Hurston's influences and her start as an anthropologist of the American South. This article was originally published as “What Zora Went Looking For” in the Winter 2021 issue of Humanities magazine, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"Zora's Place": Anne Trubek's NEH Digital Feature draws upon Hurston's words and experiences to tell the many stories of Eatonville. 

Eatonville: Holding On To History: This digital project traces the connections between Eatonville’s history as the first known all-Black town and residents’ contemporary efforts to preserve the community’s cultural and historic resources. 

Zora Neale Hurston's Hometown Legacy: The above video from The New York Times draws upon archival materials from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and interviews with Eatonville residents to investigate the history, culture, and legacy of this town.

Zora Neale Hurston timeline (1930-1935): The Library of Congress offers a timeline of Hurston's theatrical and fictional publications, including collaborations with Langston Hughes.   

Valerie BoydA Digital Feature: The late scholar and biographer is the focus of this NEH feature that explores her scholarship, teaching, writing, and involvement with NEH-sponsored Landmarks of American History and Culture programs.

Zora Neale Hurston: Crash Course Black American History #30: Historian and educator Clint Smith’s lesson on Zora Neale Hurston includes several resources for further learning.

Alice Walker Shines Light on Zora Neale Hurston: This episode of PBS American Masters explores Zora Neale Hurston’s influence on author Alice Walker.  

National Trust for Historic PreservationEatonville: The Saving Places collection features several articles and resources exploring Eatonville’s history, making the case for historic preservation districts for places like Eatonville, and contemplating the relationship between place and writing for Hurston and other authors.  

Zora Neale Hurston Resource Page: Vanderbilt University provides access to interviews and oral histories on Hurston’s research and legacy and lesson plans and curriculum for teaching Zora Neale Hurston’s literature with oral histories and other media. 

Zora Neale Hurston National Museum: Learn about how the museum provides gallery space for artists of African descent in the heart of the Eatonville community.