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Florida Town Vies with North Carolina Town over "Oldest Incorporated African-American Municipality"

Residents in the town of Eatonville are celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. It was incorporated in 1887, making it one of the oldest historically black municipalities in the US. In fact, they say it is the oldest.

But there’s another American town that makes the same claim – Princeville, North Carolina, incorporated 1885.

Both towns want the prestige and the potential tourism revenue that comes with the title of “the country’s oldest incorporated African-American town.”

So, which is the oldest?

Judging by the numbers alone, it seems clear that Princeville, not Eatonville, is the oldest existing incorporated African-American town in the US. Princeville historian Ruldolph Knight heads up a private preservation group in neighboring Tarboro, North Carolina promoting awareness of African-American history and culture.

“Hands down I don't see how Eatonville can make that claim by virtue of, chronologically, Princeville was incorporated on February the 20th 1885, and Eatonville was in 1887”, said Knight.

Knight says Princeville began as a camp for Union soldiers sent to protect newly-freed slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. African-Americans settled nearby for the relative safety, and a town began to form.

In Florida, Eatonville took shape under very different circumstances. NY Nathiri of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community says a culture of violence against African-Americans in the 1860’s changed the way blacks approached living in the south.

Nathiri said, “There were certain thinkers in the African-American community that said, ‘If we cannot live safely with whites, we need to form communities or settlements where at least we can look at being physically safe.’”

So Nathiri says, the founders of Eatonville set out with the specific intention of forming an all-black town.

“Joe Clark actually bought the land and then provided it in parcels, small parcels”, Nathirisaid. “At the time, the newspaper the Eatonville Speaker advertised, ‘Solve the race problem – come to Eatonville and govern yourselves. There's not a white family in the town.’”

It's that deliberate, and successful planning that Nathiri says makes Eatonville the first African-American incorporated town. In contrast, Princeville formed organically and attracted some white and Native American residents.

But Princeville's Rudolph Knight still contends the year of incorporation is what matters.

“Look at the documents. Look at the facts. You can’t go back and change it”, Knight said. “But when people have a project or they have a goal in mind, they can start to sort of manipulate and change the fit, what they want it to fit.”

Everett Fly, author of the book Black Settlements in America, says both of the towns were part of something big. Princeville was first chronologically, and Eatonville was first to be a planned black community. And, Fly says, both firsts are important.

“The fact that Eatonville and Princeville were established within two years of each other in different states makes it very clear that there was kind of a movement across the country for African-Americans to claim their civil rights through establishment of incorporated municipalities”, said Fly.

At the time, owning land was the key to rights such as education, voting and running for public office.

Princeville does have time on its side, says Fly, but details including Eatonville’s planned layout, and the mix of people it attracted, cannot be ignored in the debate. Residents challenged cultural norms for the time by moving great distances to come to Eatonville.

Fly said, “Most of those folks that settled Eatonville were from Virginia or Alabama or Tennessee or other parts of Florida. So, these were folks that were very industrious, they were willing to move and relocate.”

Among those attracted to Eatonville were the parents of renowned folklorist and author Zora Neale Hurston. She grew up in Eatonville and described it vividly in her books. NY Nathiri says Hurston’s works raised the town’s profile nationwide.

“We need to be very careful that we understand the authenticity upon which Eatonville rests”, Nathiri said. “We don't have to do any config- any kind of somersaults or backflips, we don't have to do any twisting and turning. We are authentic.”

The National Registry of Historic Places recognizes the contributions of both Eatonville and Princeville. Both towns would like to develop cultural tourism partially tied to designation as the nation's oldest incorporated African-American municipality, but which town holds that title is still up for debate.