A descendant of the founders of the Black-incorporated Town of Eatonville has joined a lawsuit contesting the Orange County School District’s control of property dedicated long ago to the education of Black children.
The new plaintiff is Bea Leach Hatler, the great-granddaughter of Robert Hungerford, namesake for the school built on the site, which for years was the only school for Black children in the area of Central Florida.
The school board attempted to sell 100 acres to a private interest intending to construct a mixed-use development, but objections from the Eatonville community forced the developer to call off the project. The community now hopes to develop a museum, conference center, and school in honor of Zora Neale Hurston, the celebrated writer and folklorist who was born there.
“My family’s intention for the land was clear,” Hatler said in a news release distributed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is litigating the case.
“My great-grandfather’s vision was that of education. He would be appalled at attempts to strip the land away from the people of Eatonville. The property was conveyed to the Orange County school board for the express purpose of education and that should be honored. The public has spoken time and time again. We just need the school board to listen to the people of Eatonville.”
Florida Phoenix columnist Craig Pittman wrote in February that residents of Eatonville worry that the wrong sort of development could undermine their town’s African American heritage. Emancipated Blacks founded the town in 1887 and it is one of the last remaining Black municipalities, according to an amended complaint. The school was founded in 1897 as a trust but Orange County schools took it over in 1951. The complaint alleges violations of the law in the district’s treatment of the trust property.
“Although there is no pending sale of the property, there continues to be a legal dispute over this land that the Orange County School Board holds in trust for the benefit of the community, specifically the children of the town of Eatonville,” Kirsten Anderson, deputy legal director for economic justice and attorney for the law center.
“This lawsuit asks the court find that OCPS is not free to simply abandon its obligations to ensure that this land is used for educational or other related purposes in the public interest,” Anderson said.
The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community estimates the cost at developing the Hurston project at nearly $88 million.
–Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix