Standing in 100-year-old Ella Dinkins’ yard in Eatonville, Florida, one sees pieces of the rich and complex history of this municipality of about 2,200 people, the oldest historically black-incorporated town in America.
There’s Lake Hungerford to the west, a taste of the countryside that once surrounded the 131-year-old town, which sits just outside Orlando. There’s Dinkins’ rambling white house—expanded by her father, who also helped build Eatonville’s first one-room school. There’s the garden, once farmed by Dinkins and tended today by volunteers eager to provide healthy food for their neighbors. And, running east of the property, there’s Interstate 4.
Since its construction in the late 1950s, the federal highway has cleaved Eatonville in two. That indignity changed the town but miraculously didn’t destroy it.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve known about Eatonville’s historic significance,” says 24-year-old Jasmyne Reese, whose family has been here four generations. She works for the town’s Community Redevelopment Agency, promoting urban renewal.
Founded by freedmen on land acquired from a rare white landowner willing to sell large tracts to black people, Eatonville today is characterized by multigenerational ties, tight-knit camaraderie, and deep pride in its place in history. This predominantly black community survived when others did not. Now, the town is determined to thrive.