EATONVILLE, Fla. — Any day now, the community expects to learn what will happen to 100 acres of land in one of the oldest historically Black towns in the United States, Eatonville.
Eatonville's Town Council recently voted against rezoning the land, which would have cleared the way for development that many residents say would erase the town's history and price current residents out.
Many residents, including alumna Vera King, simply want the land back to decide on their own what gets built there.
What You Need To Know
- The property where Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School in Eatonville once stood is empty now
- The Orange County School Board owns the land and plans to sell it
- The sale of the property has a March 31 closing date
- Eatonville’s Town Council recently voted against rezoning the property
- Some residents want the property to be used in a way that indicates how special the school was
Grabbing a stack of school yearbooks is the perfect way for her to take a walk down memory lane. She chuckles and flashes a bright smile as she points to a picture of herself in one of the yearbooks.
“Aww…I was a cheerleader, and that’s in one of these books right here," she says as she flashes a bright smile, chuckles and points to a picture of herself.
The memories come flooding back.
King was born in the town of Eatonville in 1937.
"It’s a very special part of me," she says.
A short walk into her backyard these days provides proof of the winds of change. King remembers as a curious child not the distinctive roar of traffic, like you hear now around Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School, but something else as clear as day.
"I would hear the bell in the morning,” King says. “It was a boarding school at that time."
Her grandmother explained the day’s activities at the school.
"For some reason, I just remember that, you know, there are a number of things that I have forgotten over the years, but I do remember her explaining that bell ringing to me," King says.
Years later, she attended the school from the eighth grade to the 12th.
"Hungerford and Jones High School were the only two Black schools in Orange County," King says.
“We had teachers who reached out to us in ways that had nothing to do with the books,” she added. “It put a lot of people into the working world. They encouraged you, if you could — if your parents could afford it — to go to college. But they also knew that there were a number of us who could not afford to go, so they gave us skills that would help us to get jobs."
King was one of those students.
“I really give my business ed(ucation) teacher credit for putting me into the working world,” she says. “She was very strict. You didn't touch her typewriter until you knew the keyboard."
King eventually landed a job at the high school “because my principal was still there, and he needed a secretary," she says.
In 1999, she retired.
There’s not much left of the school now, King says.
Walking up to the land where the school once stood, King can peer through the chain-link fence. "And go straight down. That would be the front of the school. That's where the office was." There’s not much left of the school now.
"There's nothing out here,” she says. “They didn't even save the bell."
She says she longs to see something in its former location that pays homage to the school — more than just a plaque, something that rings true to the spirit of the historic Florida town, just like that old school bell.
"Even if they had some vocational classes out here," King says.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently wrote a letter to Orange County Public Schools, saying that if the school board continues with the sale, it could be a violation of civil rights for the residents of Eatonville because it could have an adverse impact on the residents. SPLC also maintains that before OCPS takes any action, it needs to conduct a study on what those effects could be.
Spectrum News 13 reached out to Orange County Public Schools, which responded, in part, in a statement.
“Orange County Public Schools is proceeding with the sale that honors the contract with the purchaser,” OCPS said in the statement. “The purchaser still has the option to proceed with closing on or before March 31, 2023. The District will not speculate about circumstances which may or may not occur in the future.
“OCPS has the obligation (to) be good stewards of taxpayer dollars for all of Orange County, including the town of Eatonville. With the forecasted $10M in gains from the sale of the land, OCPS would add additions at some schools and provide construction for new ones. Additionally, in 2018, the District invested $22.5 million to replace Hungerford Elementary and is currently renovating an Orange Technical College site with a new welding lab for vocational use.
“Now that the former high school site is no longer needed for educational purposes, the completion of the sale of the property will ensure the Town and its residents can benefit from additional property tax revenue from the development of this prime piece of real estate,” the statement continued. “We are a community that continues to grow, so we must be forward-looking to ensure that we make prudent decisions on how to best serve our students. Furthermore, OCPS encourages the town of Eatonville to partner with (the) purchaser to make certain the history of the Town is preserved."