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Women focus attention on small Florida town: efforts of author and doctor, decades apart, spotlight unique community.

Eatonville, Fla., like many small towns, around America, can be a speed trap. Other than that, the quaint, little town, nestled between an expressway and the city of Maitland, is a town no one might have even noticed except for the efforts of two women: Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist and writer, and Dr. N.Y. Nathiri, known as the woman who saved a town.

Eatonville was the first incorporated community built by freed slaves, and it is the oldest surviving such community in the United States. It was established in 1887 as part of the race colony movement in the years following the Civil War. The experiment in Negro democracy nurtured a relationship between the town and its favorite daughter, Hurston.

It's generally believed that Hurston was born in 1891, in Alabama. The family moved to Eatonville when she was 4. Her father, the Rev. John Hurston, served as pastor of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. He later served as the town's mayor. Joe Clarke's store was just across, the road from the Hurston home, and Hurston wrote of listening to tall tales and stories on the Lying Porch, as she called the store's veranda.

In 1882, Clarke purchased a tract of land from the mayor of Maitland. That land and an additional 10-acre tract became Eatonville after Clarke subdivided the land and sold the lots to black families. Many of the early residents of Eatonville worked in the nearby cities of Maitland, Orlando and Winter Park.

Hurston made Eatonville a destination for literary fans after she described the town and her vision of utopia in several books, including "Their Eyes Watching God." She earned a degree in anthropology in 1928 from Barnard College. She was considered an authority on black culture during the Harlem Renaissance, and she used her anthropology background in her writings. Her first novel, "Jonah's Gourd Vine," was published in 1934. Her last book, "Seraph on the Suwanee," was published in 1948.

Nathiri's efforts saved Eatonville when the state's Department of Transportation, in 1987, wanted to build a five-lane highway through it. Today, the town is a bedroom community, she says, for people living in retirement or working in nearby Orlando.

"I think people are beginning to come back," she said. "It seems younger people are coming back since Eatonville represents stability and roots. Very little land changes hands. It has been in the same families for generations."

Nathiri conducts tours of the community that start in the sanctuary of the St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church was established in 1881. In 1886, a local judge, Lewis Lawrence, donated the building and two lots of land. The church's name was changed to reflect the donation.

When the congregation outgrew the first building, it was moved across the street and became a library. A new church and parsonage were built on the site in 1909. The second church was used until 1968, when it was demolished. The present church was completed on the same site in 1972.

Famed artist Jules Andre Smith founded the nearby Maitland Art Center, which was originally established in the 1930s as an artist colony. The center includes 23 buildings that are linked by gardens and courtyards. Smith donated eight murals to the Eatonville church. The murals depict the 23rd Psalm as interpreted in the early dialect of freed slaves.

"We bring visitors to this church first to view these one-of-a-kind murals," Nathiri said. "They were produced as part of a relationship between Zora Neale Hurston and Andre Smith."

The language portrays ordinary life in Eatonville, Nathiri said. Under one panel are the words, "The Lord is my shepherd. I sure love the Lord. He stands guard beside me with fire and sword." Another mural contains a scene of a banquet of watermelon and oranges, with the legend, "When enemies haunt me to bleat and to bray He serves me a banquet to drive them away"

The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community and the Zora Neale Hurston Museum of Fine Arts are both dedicated to preserving the town's heritage. Each year, residents celebrate the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities to recognize her accomplishments.

For more information on Eatonville and the association, call 1 (407) 647-3307 or e-mail Nathiri at zora@cs.ucf.edu.
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Author:Fine, John C.
Publication:Grit
Date:Nov 10, 2002
Words:718
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