A Legacy of Engagement with Zora Neale Hurston and Eatonville

A Legacy of Engagement with Zora Neale Hurston and Eatonville

The 29th Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities began Saturday, January 20th with the opening of an exhibition entitled Retrospective—The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community: The Early Years, 1987 – 1997 curated by Dr. Scot French and Gramond McPherson from the University of Central Florida (UCF), Department of History. 

 (Images from exhibit opening)

Both Scot and I serve on the Academics Committee for the Zora Neal Hurston festival. As the comments from NY Nathiri, the executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community  (P.E.C.) indicate,  the organization has a long history promoting education. Since its inception, the festival has been dedicated to supporting a scholarly conversation about Zora Neale Hurston and her work.  The exhibition, along with other activities during the week will highlight this legacy. From my involvement with the organization, I understand this goal is crucial to the organization’s mission and pivotal to maintaining Eatonville as a striving community.

Since coming to Rollins College, I’ve been intrigued by the forgotten legacy of liberal arts and community engagement between Rollins College and Eatonville. The link starts in the late nineteenth century and continues beyond the relationship between Zora Neale Hurston, faculty, and students at the college in the 1930s. The depth of this link inspired Project Mosaic: Zora Neale Hurston. A collaborative curricular project that used Hurston’s work and life as a thematic link to explore the black experience.  Project Mosaic allowed students and faculty at Rollins to explore Hurston’s legacy through a variety disciplinary lens. Within this project, we highlight Eatonville today, her historic ties to the Rollins and the implications of her work to contemporary academic learning. 

The experience taught me the value of thinking of Hurston in a broader context and inspires contemporary projects such as the Every Tongue Got to Confess podcast. Still, the idea of a historic link to Eatonville is something I continue to explore. In part, I see the relationship between Eatonville and Rollins as part of broader historical pathway around biracial cooperation that framed the activism of “progressive” white in Central Florida in the late nineteenth century. These efforts informed the creation of black townships such as Eatonville but also shaped Hannibal Square, the historic African-American community in Winter Park, Florida. I worked with my advisee Kyndall Fairbank on a timeline project. As part of our curriculum, the Department of History developed an Applied History course to allow students to explore experiential learning opportunities. Since Kyndall expressed a desire to explore archive and museum work as a career path, this independent study with me allowed her to interview archivists, learn about archiving techniques and create a simple digital project.  Kyndall was able to examine documents in our library archive to highlight a history of engagement with Eatonville.

The history of engagement with Eatonville made our support for the 2017 Communities Conference: Civic Conversations Concerning 21st Century American Life a natural fit. We were able to bring the academic conversations that take place at the Zora Festival to our students and the Zora Festival got access to needed event space.  We documented that conversation by creating a photo archive and recording the panel discussions. In doing, we were able to capture, in some small way, the hidden dialogues around resilience and agency that continue to define Eatonville for residents and visitors alike. This week Communities Conference II: Civic Conversations Continue will take place on campus Thursday, January 25th. I expect the discussions will afford our students, faculty, and staff another opportunity to reflect on wider questions  If you are in the area, I urge you to attend the Zora Neale Hurston Festival for Arts and Humanities. If you are near campus on Thursday, you should take the chance to attend Communities Conference II: Civic Conversations Continue.