Since she was a child in the 1950s and 60s, Bea Leach Hatler had always heard stories of “the land in Eatonville” that was an important part of her family’s legacy. On Thursday, for the first time, she saw what was left of the property that once housed the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, her great-grandfather’s namesake.
“It’s like, God, they were here. They were here,” said Hatler, 71. “My grandfathers, from the 1800s, they have walked this property. … I’m so humbled. It’s not just soil. It’s not just dirt. This is Black American history and, by God, it needs to stay in Eatonville.”
Once a 300-acre campus that taught Black students when schools were legally segregated, about 100 acres remain.
Under the shadow of Interstate 4, lined in chain-link fencing with Keep Out signs bolted every few yards, the land is at the center of a battle between Orange County Public Schools, which nearly sold it to a developer in March, and the residents of Eatonville, who said the developer’s plan for new housing was far too expensive for most residents whose families had lived in the historic Black town for generations to afford.
In a grassroots effort led by longtime residents, about 100 people showed up to a town council meeting in February and spoke out against the development. They successfully swayed the town council, which voted down the project, leading the developer to cancel the $14 million sale a month later. The school board has since dropped the search for a new buyer but the future of the land is still uncertain.
In July, Hatler joined a lawsuit filed by Alabama-based civil rights organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing her and the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, PEC.
“I’m here for my great grandfather’s vision,” said Hatler, who spent days walking around the town visiting the post office, the library, the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts and Hungerford Elementary School — where she saw a portrait of her great grandfather, who died of an illness at just 26, for the first time. They have the same nose, she said.
“People had no idea that there were even Hungerfords still living and I’m here to say that I’m representing the Hungerfords’ vision and their love for Eatonville and their love for the people,” she said. “I’m with the PEC and I stand strong right beside them… to make sure that the school board relinquishes this land and we get Eatonville and the people of Eatonville to tell us what they want because they deserve it. I’m here to see that happen.”
Representatives for the school board have said little to indicate what will happen to the land except to say that the request from the residents that OCPS donate the property to the town so residents and leaders can decide its future alone is prohibited by law. Legal experts who reviewed the law and school board policy at the request of the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year disagreed with that interpretation and said the land could be donated.
In a motion to dismiss filed last month, lawyers for the school board argued that the SPLC lawsuit lacked, standing pointing out that Hatler, who lives in Oregon, and the PEC, led by longtime activist and Eatonville resident N.Y. Nathiri, had no right to file suit against OCPS because they were not and would never be students or parents of students.
The SPLC complaint also argued that when OCPS bought the land for well below market value in the early 1950s, the school board agreed that the purpose of the land was for the education of Black students.
Beginning in the decades following the sale, OCPS has fought to remove that requirement so the land could be sold and developed for non-educational purposes.
OCPS lawyers claimed that the courts had already decided to strike the requirement years prior and it was too late to appeal that decision. The lawyers went on to say that even if a judge ruled to reinstate it, the requirement would be “unenforceable” because, by their interpretation, it “requires the School Board to operate a public school for African American children only,” lawyers for the school board wrote.
The school board argued that reinstating the educational requirement would violate U.S. Supreme Court decisions meant to protect civil rights, Brown v. Board of Education, which required school desegregation, and Shelley v. Kraemer, which ensured the right for all citizens to be protected under the law regardless of race.
“Taking Brown and Shelley together, the 1951 Court-imposed Use Restriction became illegal after Brown as it required the School Board to operate a segregated school on the Hungerford Property as desired by Plaintiffs and is unenforceable pursuant to Shelley because its enforcement by this Court would preclude all other children who are not African American from attending said school in violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection under the laws of the United States,” the school board’s motion said.
SPLC lawyers disputed this claim in a response to OCPS’ motion to dismiss the case, saying that no argument was made that called for OCPS to operate a segregated school.
One idea for an educational use for a portion of the property was presented earlier this year by Nathiri, who requested $87 million to build a ZORA! Campus that would include a new museum complex dedicated to famed writer and Eatonville native Zora Neale Hurston and an upgraded Excellence Without Excuses computer lab to replace the current one on Kennedy Boulevard.
It would also include a STEM Center for science, technology, engineering and math education and a conference center that can accommodate meetings up to 1,000 people.
Hatler said she supports the idea for the ZORA! Campus if Nathiri can raise funds to build it.
A hearing is scheduled for Thursday for a judge to determine if the case can continue or if it should be dismissed as OCPS has requested.