Written by Karen Nickless
Eatonville, Florida (pop. 2000), “The Town That Freedom Built,” was the first incorporated African American town in the United States. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, as violence and discrimination escalated, African Americans often joined together in communities, buying land where they could.
Incorporated in 1887, Eatonville became nationally known due to its most famous resident, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). Hurston, whose best-known work is Their Eyes Were Watching God, was a novelist, folklorist and anthropologist and a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance. Her insight into the culture of southern blacks not only put Eatonville on the map, it also preserved the culture for future generations.
Even as a Mecca for admirers of Hurston, Eatonville was not immune from the pressures of the twentieth century. Located a short distance from Orlando, the town lost part of its built environment to the construction of highways and lost population as a result of the closing of both its public and its private schools. One hundred years after its incorporation, citizens of Eatonville formed the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.).
Through the efforts of P.E.C., Eatonville now has a National Register historic district, Certified Local Government status and hosts an annual arts festival, “Zora!”
As always, work remains to be done. The oldest house in town, the Thomas House, will become the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of the Fine Arts, and efforts to draw more heritage tourists continue. As Hurston said in Dust Tracks on the Road, “Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to 'jump at de sun.' We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
Sadieville, Kentucky (population 294) is not an arts destination or a destination at all except during its annual Railroad Festival. That could change.
On May 23, Preservation Kentucky (Kentucky’s statewide and a National Trust partner organization) held a news conference to announce the first of its Most Endangered Historic Places for 2011, Historic Small Town Kentucky. Taking Sadieville as a case study, PK director Rachel Kennedy discussed the problems that disinvestment and the loss of historic schools can cause in small towns. These losses, Kennedy said, “make it more difficult to attract new residents and retain middle-class families. The town treasury suffers these effects through a declining tax base and a lack of community spirit. Without positive change, a town like Sadieville could fade away.”
But the Town of Sadieville is not going gently into that good night. A few years ago Cynthia Foster, Sadieville town clerk, called the National Trust Southern Office for help in restoring a Rosenwald School. Through technical advice and grants from our office and the hard work and dedication of the citizens of Sadieville, that dream is on its way to being a reality. The town now owns the school and the nearby African American church and plans to restore both. Recent work placed the school on a firm foundation of dry stack stone.
As Mayor Claude Christensen said at the news conference, “We’re getting a huge preservation appetite. The more we looked, the more we saw and uncovered things that had significance.” The town of Sadieville will continue to work with the National Trust through the Rosenwald School Initiative, with the Kentucky State Historic Preservation Office, with Preservation Kentucky and with the University of Louisville, who will assist with a survey and National Register of Historic Places listing.
But, when it comes down to it, Sadieville has to make the hard decisions that Mayor Christensen called the “people vs. things” problem. Sewer lines or historic preservation? Infrastructure or a Senior Center? His answer?
“While we worry about the “things” let’s not forget about the people. Let’s give them something that causes them to think, to appreciate, to feel, and to be—human. After all, most of them, even those who are working on budgets, are in fact human and it’s the thinking and feeling and appreciating that makes them such. What do you say folks—how about throwing a little money at the museum, and the Amen House and the Senior Center, and the other things in our community that make us who we are, because at the end of the day, we’re worth it.”
And the preservationists say, “AMEN!”
Karen Nickless, PhD, is a field representative in the Southern Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.