Residents speak out against the sale of land where Florida's oldest Black school once stood
The site of the first school for Black children in Central Florida is up for grabs as Orange County Public Schools prepares to close the deal to sell the 100 acres of land on which it once stood in March.
Some residents want the town of Eatonville to regain ownership over the historic site, while a developer plans to turn it into mixed housing.
Vera King can remember the sound of kids going to school at Hungerford. She remembered the sounds of bells heard from her grandmother’s house. “That first bell was for the kids to get up and do their chores," said King. "The second bell was for them to go to breakfast. And the third bell was for them to go to class.”
King is in her late 80s now. She’s lived most of her life in Eatonville, just a few blocks away from where the school once was. She was a student at the school first, and later a secretary and bookkeeper. “And they were very good years," said King. "It hurts now to pass that lot and see that space because it had so much history."
The school began with a donation of 300 acres of land from a northern white philanthropist. It focused on things like domestic work and agriculture, along with having a liberal arts curriculum.
UCF history professor Scot French said the school fell into disrepair during World War II. An effort to renew the school followed.
“There were conversations with Mary McLeod Bethune and Bethune, University. I'm not sure if it was called Bethune Cookman at that time, but the idea was that they might create a satellite campus in Eatonville," said French. "That did not come to fruition. And so a decision was made to transfer the property to Orange County Public Schools.”
During the pandemic, the school which had already been shut down in the early 2000s was demolished. All that’s left is 100 acres of mostly barren land where the school once stood.
Orange County Public Schools has already started the process to sell the land to a developer that would turn it into mixed housing for local residents.
But John Beacham, a lifelong Eatonville resident, would like to see the land returned to the town of Eatonville and turned back into an educational center inspired by the work of another Hungerford alum.
“But if I had to like wave a magic wand, I would see a Zora Neale Hurston Museum," said Beacham. "Zora talks about a folklore center in her books.”
Author Zora Neale Hurston considered Eatonville her home and attended the Hungerford School. Beacham says he’s already gathered over 1,200 signatures on a petition which he’ll present to the Eatonville Town Council during their next meeting. He said young people need to understand and remember the history of that site, not just live on top of it.
“I love St. Augustine, but St. Augustine is not the only treasure. Our kids are getting on buses and driving miles and miles away," said Beacham. "And parents are worried all day long that their kids are on their way to St. Augustine and on the way back while we have that treasure right here.”
Back in her home just a few miles away, Hungerford alum Vera King said simply put she would like to see another vocational school there. But if it’s not a school, it should at least preserve the history of Hungerford.
“It becomes a part of you that you'd want to tell other people about," said King. "You want to impress on them the importance of maintaining because when I look back, we have lost a lot of our historic places.”
Ultimately it will be up to the school district and Eatonville Council to decide the fate of the Hungerford site. If the council approves rezoning the land for the project, OCPS will finalize its sale to a developer for $14 million.
In a statement, the proposed developer says its plans include some acres dedicated to a cultural site.
Hungerford advocates say that’s far less than the 100 acres the school once was. Read more about their fight here, in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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