While the new MLK Memorial was being dedicated in Washington DC last week amid much hype, a living monument to black American dreams and resilience was quietly going about life in central Florida.
I’ve never been a big fan of Florida.
Beaches, we’ve already got on the West Coast, without the possibility of having an alligator turn up on your patio. Heat. Humidity. Hurricanes. That whole “hanging chad” thing. I’m just not feelin’ it.
Or rather, I wasn’t…until I heard about Eatonville.
It’s a little ways north of Orlando. If you think of it at all, it’s most likely to be as a small spot on your car’s GPS enroute to Disneyworld.
It’s small — really small. Blink twice while you’re driving and you could miss the whole place. Population: 2,500 and change. There are high schools in this country with more people than that.
It’s not sitting on some great lake, mighty river or endless seacoast. Nothing of great value was discovered there.
Then again, maybe something was.
The source is in the town history. The clue is in the town’s Web site:
“Welcome to the Town of Eatonville
The Oldest Incorporated African American Municipality in America”
That, I guarantee, would be more than enough to slow my roll to Disneyworld.
In some ways, that Eatonville ever existed at all, and still survives today, may qualify as a small miracle.
The town was first formed in 1863 by slaves freed during the Civil War. It didn’t incorporate until 1887, after a small group of white landowners, including one Florida mayor, Josiah Eaton, sold some land to a group of black Floridians who longed for a community of their own, where they could build their own businesses and feel safe.
Not a gift, but a purchase. Not 40 acres and a mule, but 112 acres — and a town.
Eatonville survived the Civil War. It survived Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Black Codes. It survived the white backlash that destroyed the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK and led to Florida’s own Rosewood Massacre. It survived the Great Depression.
And it has survived its share of hurricanes.
Just last weekend, the new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. was dedicated, amid much hype and fanfare. And to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it was fitting and proper to do so.
But MLK himself did not survive the Civil Rights movement. Eatonville did.
Along the way, it produced some notable names. One of them was Zora Neale Hurston, one of America’s most gifted and respected black writers.
It also gave birth to David “Deacon” Jones, the Hall of Fame NFL defensive end who invented the term “sack,” and taught a whole generation of opposing quarterbacks — painfully — what it meant.
Today, Eatonville goes on about its life as a town that is roughly 4 percent Latino or Hispanic, 7 percent white and 89 percent black. It has a town hall and a town council. It has a library and a community center. It holds community events — movie screenings, exercise classes.
And it has people who are proud of their town’s heritage and are working to maintain it, including annual August celebrations of its founding.
There are no national monuments or memorials honoring Eatonville, and just as well. It is its own monument, to perseverance, a spirit of entrepreneurship, of community. It’s not big. It’s not rich. But by God, it endures.
Disneyworld may have to wait awhile. Eatonville is on my list.