The first time I heard about Eatonville, I was deep into reading Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like feisty Janie and sweet-talking Tea Cake, the town of Eatonville is a well-defined character with a distinct personality and attitude. As a fan of Hurston’s evocative writing, I absorbed Eatonville in her novels just as I did her fictional characters. They became a part of my own history and inner life. So when I recently stood in the middle of Eatonville’s Kennedy Boulevard with the Florida sun beaming down on me, I felt disbelief… like a fairytale figure somehow transformed into reality.

The reality is that Eatonville, Florida remains the oldest incorporated African-American township in the country, established in 1887 and not all that different from when Hurston lived there at the turn of the 19th century. Just six miles from the fabricated attractions of Orlando, Eatonville represents another era, when self-sufficient Black communities thrived. Filled with palm trees and small-town charm, Eatonville boasts 2,000 residents and a palpable sense of pride in their heritage. Every year on the last week of January, Eatonville showcases this pride for 10 days, during its Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.

Art exhibits, community discussions, films and music are all Zora festival hallmarks, but the real appeal is the people of Eatonville. Town matriarch Ms. Ella Mae Jenkins (a quick-witted nonagenarian, whose mother was a friend of Hurston’s) was my first introduction to Eatonville charisma. Adorned in a snappy floral ensemble and heels, Ms. Ella offered me a briefing of “can’t miss” landmarks: like the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum, Gordon’s Be Back Fish House and St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Strolling past trees dripping with Spanish moss, I spotted miles of Kennedy Boulevard blocked off for the Zora Festival. The first building I arrived at was the squat white and blue structure for Gordon’s Be Back Fish House. If the name doesn’t amuse you, the sign along the road announcing “Hot Fish and Grits” surely will.

Stepping inside, a small cluster of tables decked in red-and-white checked vinyl covers and walls plastered with Black art fill the space. Lines of locals ordering baskets of fried catfish, flounder, whiting and shrimp convince me that this is the place to eat in Eatonville. It was only after tucking into a perfectly seasoned basket of crispy whiting that I discovered that the gregarious owner, Abraham Gordon, was once mayor of Eatonville (a position also held by Hurston’s father from 1912-1916).

With customers still reverently calling him Mayor Gordon, he regaled visitors with tales of how he first arrived in Eatonville in 1954, serving twice as mayor from 1980-1987. Emphasizing the importance of community service as he served up slices of sweet potato pie, Gordon personified warm Eatonville spirit.

Across the street, St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church represents another kind of spirit vital to Eatonville. Founded in 1881, St. Lawrence is Eatonville’s first church, adorned with red pews and murals displaying Black angels and scenes of rural Black life. During the Zora fest, the church hosted several events, including a panel discussion of Russian students who’d journeyed all the way to Eatonville after reading Hurston’s vibrant literary accounts. 

It also houses another popular food option: elaborate meals cooked by the church’s matrons in the church kitchen. Set up with small tables and chairs, the efficient operation provides order forms where customers can choose turkey and dressing, meatloaf, or oven-fried Southern chicken—with a choice of three sides, including collard greens, mac ’n’ cheese, potato salad, string beans or mashed potatoes—all for $10! In true Southern tradition, the mounds of food served for one are enough to feed an entire family, so I grabbed several to-go boxes before I made my way to the museum.

At the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum, a groundbreaking, trans-media art installation called Question Bridge opened on the seventh day of the festival. Viewers crammed into the small space to watch a fascinating exploration of Black male identity in America. An innovative, mediated question-and-answer exchange tackled issues of empowerment, success and freedom. The questions prompted me to consider how much the small town of Eatonville symbolized these same principles for generations of African-Americans.

“Eatonville is a dinosaur. You’re not going to bring this kind of community into existence anymore,” said N. Y. Nathiri, daughter of Ms. Dinkins and executive director of Preserve the Eatonville Community, the nonprofit that organizes the Zora Festival. “There’s something special about our circumstances. We don’t always understand the fragile, delicate existence we have as a self-governing community.”

As I later watched a parade of women model a rainbow of fanciful toppers during Hatitude, a brunch and fashion show in honor of Hurston’s love of hats, I couldn’t agree more with Nathiri. There’s no place like Eatonville, and visiting this storied little town helped me understand the magic that inspired its most famous daughter. The magic is still there, and it continues to touch all who visit. — Rosalind Cummings-Yeates