Truth be told, Black History Month isn’t a special time for N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (P.E.C. for short).
For her and the rest of the (mostly volunteer-driven) team that spends 365 days a year working tirelessly to preserve the town of Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-Black municipality in the United States, Black History Month is just the time of the year when the rest of the world pays attention.
But N.Y.’s work isn’t confined to a month, a holiday or even a 9-5. N.Y.’s dream, she said, is for Eatonville to be recognized globally as an international destination for arts and humanities, due in part to rigorous intellectual programming and concentrated efforts that resonate outside of the local context.
“I think we’re poised to do that over the next 10 years,” she said.
Eatonville, a town just six miles north of Orlando, was incorporated on August 15, 1887, and is the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and other novels, essays and short stories detailing African folklore and racial struggles in the early-1900s American South. It’s home to the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, a world-class gallery space exhibiting works by artists of African descent. It’s the only place in 400 miles that showcases works by artists from the African continent and/or Diaspora, according to the Museum’s website.
N.Y.’s family connection to the town dates back to the early 1900s when her grandfather, a contractor and an architect, built the home of the first principal of the Hungerford School, founded in 1897 to serve Eatonville’s youth. When the Great Depression hit and her grandfather lost everything, he started over by buying 33 acres that were subject to tax sales (a forced sale of property for unpaid taxes by the property’s owner) in Eatonville, that little town that he did a job in a while back.
N.Y. herself has been involved in P.E.C. since 1987 and became the first paid staff member in 1991. She helped establish the first ZORA! Festival in 1990, a month-long, interdisciplinary and intergenerational event featuring talks, movie screenings, arts education, roundtable discussions about Hurston’s works and more.
This year’s festival centers on Afrofuturism in the visual realm. In the words of Delan Bruce for UCLA Magazine, Afrofuturism is “a wide-ranging social, political and artistic movement that dares to imagine a world where African-descended peoples and their cultures play a central role in the creation of that world.”
In fact, the Museum’s current exhibition is perhaps one of the finest displays of Afrofuturist media in existence. Black Kirby, an art collective composed of artists and professors John Jennings and Stacey Robinson, pays homage to American comic book artist Jack Kirby. The duo utilizes Kirby’s bold, iconic art style to visually express themes such as Afrofuturism, social justice, science fiction and the politics and poetry of Hip Hop culture.
N.Y. and the people of Eatonville are awfully proud of the exhibition, she said, and she hopes that everyone who’s able will seize the opportunity to view it before it leaves in 2023.
Once it does depart, however, you can be sure that N.Y., the Museum, P.E.C. and all the residents of Eatonville will continue to celebrate and honor The Town That Freedom Built and its people; past, present and future.
“For people who are thinking about what is possible in Orange County, keep an eye on Eatonville,” she said. “We represent the fullness of excellence in terms of intellect and culture and the richness of the American saga.”
Please visit zorafestival.org for a detailed schedule of events, including the Outdoor Festival of the Arts, rescheduled for June 3-5.
Those looking to learn more about the history of Eatonville should listen to “An Eatonville Saga: The Story of an Historic Black Town’s Struggle to Survive and Thrive,” a podcast hosted by N.Y. Nathiri, at preserveeatonville.org/podcast.
Finally, if you believe in P.E.C.’s mission to preserve Eatonville and educate the world about its significance, please consider donating to its cushion campaign here to provide the association with a 5-year general operating support fund.