GREENSBORO — N.C. A&T’s senior landscape architectural design class is working to preserve the oldest black community in the country.
Eatonville, Fla., the childhood home of noted author Zora Neale Hurston, is two miles long and is surrounded by more-prosperous neighbors, including Orlando.
“It’s kind of like you’ve been walking in the desert for two miles and then all of a sudden you are in a small New York City,” said Keana Graham, a senior majoring in landscape architecture.
The class has been working on the project with architecture historian Everett L. Fly. In 1979, Fly won a design arts fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to study the origin and evolution of historic black communities in the United States.
The students have agricultural sustainability ideas to help residents use their land to grow food for commerce. Other ideas including using an old building as a civic center.
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“I really wished that I had had an opportunity like that when I was a student,” said Fly, who will speak about his work Tuesday at A&T. “You know how you might think of this work as academic or theory, but actually putting it into practice is the second part of the dream.”
Eatonville — which calls itself “The Town that Freedom Built” — was incorporated in 1887 by 27 free black men. The city, home to just more than 2,000 people, is also at twice the national poverty level. It has a post office, public safety building and small businesses.
The students will make a presentation to the town’s residents in January, during the annual festival commemorating Hurston, the most famous female writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She grew up in Eatonville, and her books have been required reading in many high schools and colleges. “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is one of her best known works.
“They want you to come to Eatonville and say, ‘This should be a national landmark,’ ” said A&T professor Perry Howard, who has visited the town and gotten to know some of the people.
His students take on a different community service project each year.
“They are welcoming and humble and they want to do more for their community,” he said. “City council is struggling, trying to keep the place going. The idea is to put some emphasis on the town other than the festival.”
Fly, a professional architect and landscape architect, has a relationship with the community that goes back three decades when Orange County was planning to run a four-lane highway through the city’s main corridor. Residents told Fly that would further divide the town, and when community leaders heard of Fly’s research, they asked him for his advice.
“The road in itself was actually a historic resource,” Fly said.
Hurston made it a central focus in her book, “Dust Tracks on a Road.” The argument helped to keep the project at bay.
“There are lots of people who are doubters, who don’t think there’s anything out there worth saving,” Fly said.
Fly’s words have helped to propel the class.
Graham, for example, has been working on uses of available green space. The town doesn’t have a YMCA or very many recreational opportunities, Graham said.
“What I hope is that when we present this to the citizens of Eatonville, that they will be inspired,” Graham said.
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 373-7049.