How property ownership empowered a black community to thrive in the post-Reconstruction era

February 02, 2024 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Eatonville sign

The Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era were fraught with tumult as the Southern states struggled with economic devastation and ever-mounting racial tensions.

With the end of the Civil War came the end of slavery and a burgeoning hope for racial equality. The newly ratified Fourteenth Amendment declared what the laws of nature had long since established: All people, regardless of the color of their skin. were equal and should be treated thusly by the law.

But bitterness and animosity over the war spread through the South like wildfire. And in the absence of slavery, “black codes” and Jim Crow laws continued racial discrimination for decades to come. Black Americans were now afforded constitutional rights, but many Southern municipalities did everything they could to deprive them of their birthright.

Amidst this mayhem, a community of black individuals found quietude and empowerment through their newly legal—but always inherent—right to own property.

The founding father of Eatonville

Eatonville, Florida, just seven miles north of Orlando, stands as a living monument to the power of property rights and the formidable blow these rights delt to post-Reconstruction discrimination.

In 1887, Eatonville became the first black-incorporated township in the country. For two decades, there had been a handful of unsuccessful attempts at establishing freedmen settlements, but Eatonville broke the mold.

During the postbellum years, there was a great thirst for autonomy among the black community and an eagerness to exercise their newfound liberty. That thirst, however, was hard to quench in a climate where lingering racial discrimination prevented black men and women from fully enjoying the freedoms they were promised.

True, on paper, black men could now own property, but that didn’t mean it was easy to find someone willing to sell it to them.

Joseph E. Clark dreamed of building a self-sufficient black town. He was just six years old when the war ended, and unlike many others, was able to attend school, thanks to the $400 his father had saved in his early years of freedom. He treasured his education, and he would eventually contribute to the founding of Morris-Brown College in Atlanta.

In the 1880s, the 20-something Clark tried numerous times to secure land where his dream town could be built. Each time, he was turned down by white men who refused to let him purchase their land.

Despite the hardships, he pressed on in pursuit of his vision.

Around this time, Clark became acquainted with a local landowner, Joshia Eaton, and a Northern philanthropist, Lewis Lawrence. Eaton lived in Maitland, Florida, and owned the neighboring land that would later become the town that bears his name. Lawrence took an interest in Clark’s cause. After some convincing, Eaton agreed to sell 22 acres of his land to Lawrence.

Lawrence developed 10 acres and donated it to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He deeded the other 12 to Clark. Eventually, Clarke was able to purchase more of Eaton’s land, and by the time the town was officially incorporated, Eatonville spanned 112 acres.

The land wasn’t much to look at; it was covered in heavy woodlands and palmetto brush. And the air was thick with mosquitos and possums ran rampant. In those early days, you had a greater chance of encountering a fatal creature than you did of running into another human.

In her book Dust Tracks on a Road, Eatonville native and prolific author Zora Neale Hurston explained that early settlers who were foolish enough to walk outside at night without a lantern were almost guaranteed to have a run-in with an alligator or a rattlesnake.

None of that mattered. What mattered to Eatonville’s early settlers was that the land was theirs and it was ripe with potential that was able to be realized only through property ownership.

This was the start of Eatonville. Clark would come to be known as the town’s founding father and serve as its second mayor.

Hope through land ownership

Eatonville became a beacon of hope for the black Americans across the South. In Eatonville, the promise of inalienable rights could be truly realized. Residents could say what they wanted and live without the constant fear of persecution. In that space, self-determination thrived because private ownership offered salvation from the widespread discrimination that made pursuing a happy and free life exceedingly difficult.

Property rights, as Eatonville residents would find out, were the key to securing all the other rights that had been guaranteed to them. And this opportunity became the major selling point of the town.

Clark was the town’s ambassador. He traveled to surrounding areas proselytizing and recruiting other men and families to seek their fortunes and secure their independence in Eatonville.

The word spread and the town became an oasis in the desert of Jim Crow. Eatonville promised to be a utopia where “wildlife abounds” and “the slightest frosts are almost unknown.” It provided the structure of a “real” city at affordable prices, with land available for as little as $5 to $10 per acre.

The opportunity to own property was empowering. Families who once endured the brutality of slavery in other people’s homes were now building homes of their own with materials they purchased with their own hard-earned money.

Some residents took work in nearby citrus groves. Some took jobs building new railroad lines. Others became entrepreneurs, starting small businesses in Eatonville and helping it become prosperous and self-sufficient. Shops and small businesses were popping up all over town.

No matter what occupation they chose, the residents of Eatonville were finally given dominion over the fruits of their labor.

Self-sufficiency was indeed the bedrock of the town. Early settlers relied on each other and worked together to build churches, municipal buildings, and cemeteries. Eatonville earned a reputation for having the best black schools in the region. Residents took pride in the community their property allowed them to create.

Outside of Eatonville’s walls, the black community struggled to enjoy the equal treatment they deserved. But within the city limits of the town that black men built, residents found the dignity every person deserves.

Hurston even wrote that she had no concept of what it meant to be black in the South during that time until she grew up and left the town. Eatonville’s entire existence was a slap in the face to the pervasive racism of the times.

And it all began with property rights.

Today, Eatonville’s legacy lives on. Its streets are booming with commerce and its historic district tells the story of a townspeople who lived free on the land they owned.

Safeguarding the legacy of property rights

The right to own property is the foundation on which all other rights are built. And it is through property that individuals of every background, creed, gender, and race are able to exercise their inherent rights.

This is precisely why protecting property rights fuels our work at Pacific Legal Foundation. For over 50 years, we have fought relentlessly to protect these individual rights when they come under attack by the government. And we will continue fighting so that every person can live in a climate of freedom.