Home / Insights / Zora Neal Hurston’s Home Town Fights Development of Historic Land on Civil Rights Grounds

Zora Neal Hurston’s Home Town Fights Development of Historic Land on Civil Rights Grounds

by | Aug 15, 2023 | Real Estate & Property Law

When real estate is in the news, it is often that same old tale of “Big Developer Continues with Plan to Upset Surrounding Community, Surprising No One.” When the party with deeper pockets always comes out on top, these situations can feel satirical, as if LARPing a democracy where cash is king. That is what makes a recent story, centered on a historic land trust site in Eatonville, FL, so refreshing – when a developer took notice of community intentions and stepped down. Regardless of whether the move was motivated financially, by potential legal exposure, or a true reaction to community concerns, it proves that even real estate is subject to that universal maxim: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Eatonville, FL as a Civil Rights Center

Eatonville is the hometown of author Zora Neale Hurston, whose works were central to the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1900s. Hurston described her hometown as “the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the United States.” The town has embraced its identity as a historic Black community, spearheaded by the efforts of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (PEC).

It was the PEC that called for help from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) when the Robert Hungerford High School property in Eatonville was teed up for sale to a private real estate developer for “mixed used development.” While this kind of residential/commercial land use doesn’t typically pose an inherent problem, it did for Eatonville residents. Why?

The Hungerford Trust

Because that property has a significant history to it. Before it was a high school, it was home to the Hungerford School, the first school for Black children in Central Florida, established in 1897. The Hungerford family donated 160 acres of the land for the founding of the school, garnering its name.

The school and the property formed part of a charitable trust, for which a handful of trustees and their successors were to ensure the land’s continued use in that vein: a place of education for Black children. The significance of that grant cannot be overstated during a time when most public schools refused education to the Black community.

The history of the Hungerford property is fraught with disputes. In 1951, a straightforward conveyance of the trust was interrupted when the School Board of Orange County, FL acquired approximately 300 acres which included the Hungerford property and school. That acquisition was contested by one of the original Hungerford heirs. 

The dispute made it to the Florida Supreme Court, where  the cy pres doctrine was invoked to resolve the dispute. “Cy pres” means “as near as possible,” and is used by courts to determine how charitable gifts are distributed when the original conditions are no longer possible. The result was that the Orange County School Board took title to the Hungerford property, but with a deed restriction mirroring the original intention of the charitable trust:

“That upon the conveyance of said real property to the Board of Public Instruction of Orange County, Florida, said real property be used as a site for the operation of a public school thereon for negroes with emphasis on the vocational education of [N]egroes and to be known as “Robert Hungerford Industrial School” and the personal property as conveyed to said Board shall be used in connection therewith.”

From 2011 to present, the School Board and The Hungerford Chapel Trustees have worked back and forth on deals to release the land from those deed restrictions and put it to another use. 

There’s significant depth to these negotiations, including the demolition of the Hungerford High School buildings in 2020 – with contracts inside and outside of judicial review – which is glossed over for our purposes. If you’re interested in the play-by-play, you can’t do better than SPLC’s detailed written complaint

Our abridged version is that the Hungerford Chapel Trustees and School Board worked to open the land to commercial use, asserting that Eatonville would benefit more from productive use of the land. Citizens of Eatonville were not in agreement over what the property should be used for. The School Board and Hungerford Chapel Trustees finally achieved release from the educational land use restriction in 2022, to the chagrin of much of the Eatonville community.

Preserving Eatonville

Then in December 2021, the School Board entered into a sales contract for 100 acres of the property with Falcone & Associates. The developer laid out their plan to the city, including residential parcels mixed with business and office properties.

But the School Board found themselves continually extending the closing date of the sale, because the developer had not been granted land use entitlements by the city. Eatonville was holding out. The city requires at least 5% of the land to be used for public purposes according to their 2018 Comprehensive Plan. The developer tried to change the zoning and the Comprehensive Plan to fit their purposes, but Eatonville voted it down.


It was around this time that PEC came to SPLC, who began representing PEC. PEC viewed the Hungerford property as essential to Eatonville’s renaissance. The property is a large part of the town – 14% of Eatonville – and PEC wanted to see its continued civic use. In their words, the private development of the Hungerford Property “threatens to erase a living, thriving historical Black community.” 

Their detailed concerns included:

  • Increased intensity and density of the land usage
  • Decreased affordable housing
  • More traffic, without a plan to accommodate greater infrastructure needs
  • Inattention to the historical and cultural preservation of Eatonville

SPLC filed  their complaint on behalf of PEC in March 2023, asserting that the School Board had no right to wrest the property from public education usage, citing Florida Statute sec. 1013.28(1)(a), requiring a school board to take “diligent measures” to make these kinds of changes, and only if they’re in the “best interests of the public.”

Had the Orange County School Board really shown that making the Hungerford property open to private sale was in Eatonville’s best interest?

SPLC asserted they had not, noting the lack of research into how the city and its residents would receive benefits from maximizing private profits on the Hungerford property. SPLC argued that, even if the School Board no longer needed the Hungerford Property for its school system, all school lands should be held in trust “for the benefit of the community,” and: 

“…there are numerous analogous or ancillary purposes to which the land could be dedicated that would promote the original purpose of the charitable trust and comply with School Board duties… For example, dedicating portions of the land for a museum or civic space for purposes of hosting educational events would continue the charitable purpose of education in a way that furthers the intent of the original trust, protects the best interests of the public, and complies with the School Board’s duties under law and under the 1951 deed restriction/restrictive covenant.”

Residents of Eatonville echoed those same questions at community meetings: Why isn’t this land being used to promote education or benefit the kids of our community in new ways? 

The Community Is Heard

By the end of March 2023, the developer chose to cancel the sales contract on the Hungerford property rather than continue with their plan for the historic site. With the first battle won, PEC are now putting pressure on the Orange County School Board to return the Hungerford property to a public trust. It remains to be seen if the School Board is as willing to listen as the developer – but they will have to look long and hard for a justification to privatize the Hungerford property and divorce its legacy from the Eatonville community.


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