Eatonville, Florida’s Zora Neale Hurston Festival
Date posted: 2010
Every community has a unique something that sets it apart from all other places—that hook that can draw visitors in like no gimmick ever could. Sometimes it’s so obvious, it’s a wonder no one thought of promoting it sooner. Eatonville, the home of noted author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, faced near ruin before it recognized the value of honoring its native daughter with a festival now recognized around the world.
This genuine grass-roots story starts on Kennedy Boulevard in the hamlet of Eatonville, Florida. A low-income, barely acknowledged, distant cousin of Orlando on the outskirts of the mega-tourism theme park giants Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, Eatonville’s only real significance to the outside world was its designation as “the oldest, incorporated municipality in the United States founded by people of African descent.”
Despite that moniker, the town was getting no respect. It was just a small place of no real importance to outsiders. In fact, mere days after it celebrated the centennial of its incorporation in 1987, Eatonville received the jarring news that the county was planning on turning two-lane Kennedy Boulevard, the spine of the community, into a five-lane thoroughfare, thus demolishing the small-town character of this historic community.
Around the town, people sat up and asked how they could stop this public action. They didn’t want hundreds of cars zooming through the middle of their town. Appealing to the Board of County Commissioners wasn’t likely to forestall this dreaded action, but creating a marketing tool that would bring high visibility to historic Eatonville just might be the answer they were searching for.
Although the town held the distinction of being the first incorporated single-race community of the post-Civil War era, town activists knew this alone was not going to impress the county board. And that’s when they tripped over the obvious: Zora Neale Hurston, early 20th-century writer, folklorist, and anthropologist. This charismatic woman, the major female figure of the Harlem Renaissance, had called Eatonville home for much of her life. Although accomplished and renowned in her time, Hurston was also considered radical and too free-thinking by some, an independent woman gone too far and ultimately her works went out of print for decades. But in the 1970s, Zora Neale Hurston’s writings and teachings had undergone a revival thanks to the efforts of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. So, here was the basis for Eatonville’s revitalization as a center of black heritage.
The challenge was to find a way to inform the public in Orange County and all of Central Florida that within its midst sat a community with national historic significance; that instead of legislating detrimental development, the local government, together with the private sector, should explore ways to use Eatonville’s heritage and cultural resources for economic revitalization.
In the wake of the county commissioners’ resolution to bring a highway through their town, a group of concerned citizens formed The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.). Although now considered a planning organization with the long-term mission of developing Eatonville into one of America’s premier heritage communities, the truth is, in 1987, it was a group of folks who seriously wanted to stop “progress” from ruining their town. They were preservationists with a focus on education, the cultural arts, and humanities. Their task was to zero in on the significance of Eatonville from this perspective and “ sell” it to the county.
Focusing their efforts on the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston, P.E.C. looked for a way to take her contributions and make them accessible to people outside Eatonville. “But we needed a way to take something that might be perceived as stodgy and make it interesting,” says N.Y. Nathiri, P.E.C. executive director. That’s when they decided to produce a festival to honor not only Hurston and her works, but also her ideals and ethics. In short, this would be no typical street party. This festival would contain a strong humanities component to introduce modern audiences to the profound works of a pioneer in ethnic documentation and preservation.
The program would include a public forum of academic discussions, workshops, and master classes; an Education Day to present age-appropriate cultural arts programming for students; a Street Festival showcasing music, dance, drama, visual arts, folk arts, and ethnic cuisines; and cultural arts events, including concerts, art exhibitions, and theater performances.
This festival was a highly ambitious undertaking, and one considered by many as the work of masochists. Yet this was a committed group of volunteers and, steered by Nathiri, former Cornell University librarian and academician, the fledgling organization succeed in its goal, but not without many hard lessons learned. One of the most important Nathiri can impart is that “it takes lots of time to develop partnerships.” Because this festival would include a heavy concentration on education, the organizers needed to spend a lot of time developing outreach efforts to teachers. “We had to build name recognition and content about Zora Neale Hurston so we could provide classroom-ready materials to support the content of the festival,” explains Nathiri. She also sites the quality of volunteers as an essential ingredient to successful event planning.
Oddly, what would seem to be a major obstacle—attracting big-name contributors —turned out to be as simple as extending the invitation. P.E.C. sent the writer Alice Walker a package of information about their planned festival and asked if she would like to be a speaker. She accepted. It was that simple.
From there the road to success got easier. “When you have a celebrity it lends credibility,” declares Nathiri. Walker’s hefty speaking fee was picked up by a local bank almost instantly. Shortly thereafter, P.E.C. was able to secure participation from renowned actress Ruby Dee, Robert Hemenway, Hurston’s biographer, famed African-American storyteller Augusta Baker, and Dr. Ruthe T. Sheffey, Zora Neale Hurston Society founder and president. With these heavy hitters in their corner, P.E.C. requested a grant from the Florida Humanities Council, which promptly handed over an unprecedented $29,000.
Program planning got underway with a handful of volunteers who developed topics and themes and invited speakers, entertainers, and exhibitors. Sponsors from around the region were secured to help fund everything from marketing to operations. The first festival took place in January 1990, attracting 10,000 people. Each year since then has marked progressively more complex literary and cultural programs by academic and artistic presenters of note and renown from around the globe.
- Central to P.E.C.’s success in not only originating and producing such a quality festival, but in growing it every year while keeping it running smoothly, is the superb organizational skills of the team and the documentation of facts and figures from year to year. As Nathiri puts it, “We run this thing like a military operation,” which is saying a lot since there are now about 800 volunteers involved in the annual event. Guest response cards always rate the festival in highest terms for everything from content to accessibility.
- More than 10 years later, Kennedy Boulevard has not been widened and Eatonville retains its small-town ambiance, which is in keeping with the community Zora Neale Hurston called home.
- In spite of its goliathlike neighboring attractions, the Hurston Festival draws visitors from around the country on its own merit. Surveys show that attendees come to Eatonville specifically for the festival and return year after year because of the quality of the programming and production.
- Conservative estimates show that the annual January festival brings $3 million in tourist spending to Orange County.
- By 2007, this festival attracted an estimated 50,000 locals and tourists each year. The ZORA ! Festival received the "Regional Destination Award in the Humanities" from the Cultural Olympiad and was named "One of the Top 100 Events in North America" by the American Bus Association in 2004.
Collaborate: The Hurston Festival evolved from years of hard work by P.E.C. and its dedicated volunteers, but without the financial and in-kind contributions of the local education and faith communities, local and county government, and private foundations, the planning would have come to very little.
Find the Fit between the Community and Tourism: Eatonville is a very small town with a dearth of infrastructure to house and feed up to 100,000 people over a four-day period. But planners took advantage of the town’s proximity to the world’s largest tourist destination and used Central Florida’s vast cache of hospitality facilities, which typically house visitors to Walt Disney World and other area attractions, to serve the Eatonville festival attendees comfortably.
Make Sites Come Alive: Each year, festival activities include multitudes of dance, music, dramatic, and creative arts displays and shows to draw attendees into the spirit of the program. Children are always included with programming in puppetry, dance, and storytelling.
Focus on Quality and Authenticity: P.E.C. has set a standard of excellence for itself and its participants every step of the way. Only the most authentic and highest quality are accepted in everything from presentation of product and intellectual content to aesthetic appeal and accountability.
Preserve and Protect Resources: Zora Neale Hurston and P.E.C. have in common the desire to preserve and perpetuate authentic traditions about rural southern black culture. The folkways and lore that Hurston gathered and wrote about are celebrated and continued through the festival that bears her name.
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