Michigan state University English Professor, Julian Chambliss, explains that the idea of town or community creation is not an exception for African Americans. The idea of creating ones own community because one isn’t able to get a fair shake was actually a common response to conditions such as the end of Slavery, the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. It was also one of the ways African Americans sought to carve out a path to the rights one enjoys as a full citizen of the United States such as voting, free and fair civic engagement, land ownership, the opportunity to prosper and education. A good example of this philosophy is the town of Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville is known as one of the first - and some would argue it is the first - incorporated all-Black town in the United States. Like Ocoee, Florida, which was explored in the previous two episodes, it is located in Orange County.
Eatonville represents what is possible when - despite great odds - a community pools its resources, leans on informal safety nets such as faith and strong communal ties, musters a sense of resilience that is only possible after enduring generations of hardship and shares a collective dream of a better tomorrow. It was founded at a time when it was difficult for Black Americans to acquire land because many southern land owners refused to sell to them. However, an African American man named Joseph Clarke envisioned an all black town and was determined to make it happen. He discussed the idea with two white former Republican Union officers named Captain Eaton and Captain Lawrence, who both supported the idea. Eaton and Lawrence were invested in the idea of moral capitalism and believed that helping Blacks to purchase their own land and manage their own community could be a mutually beneficial allyship. This is how Joseph Clark and 26 other African American men were able to come into possession of the land they needed to found Eatonville. What is unique about Eatonville, is that it is one of a small number of all-black towns or settlements formed after the Civil War that still exists today. Throughout this time, it continued to exist in the Jim Crow south and beyond without disruption by violent race-based assaults such as those experienced in Ocoee, Perry and Rosewood, Florida. This is one of the reasons that African Americans in Eatonville were able to prosper in its early years and why they enjoyed a sense of freedom and security many other African American communities in Florida at the time did not.
Guests in this episode include N.Y. Nathiri is an Executive Director for the Association to Preserve Eatonville Community as well as Michigan State University English Professor Julian Chambliss. Chambliss also has an appointment in History and the Val Berryman Curator of History at the MSU Museum at Michigan State University. In addition, he is a core participant in the MSU College of Arts & Letters’ Consortium for Critical Diversity in a Digital Age Research (CEDAR).
“...the idea of helping African Americans get land and therefore proving that they could be citizens was a huge part of the motivation here." ~Michigan State University Professor Julian Chambliss