Dr. Walter Greason
Eatonville, Orange County in Historical Context
Matched only by New York and California, Florida represents the cultural syncretism that distinguishes the United States in world history. The unique combination of Indigenous American, European Spanish, European British, and African diasporic influences have marked the state’s landscape for five centuries. Esteban Dorantes, an enslaved African under the Spanish Empire, crossed North America from the region north of Tampa Bay to the Gulf of California between 1528 and 1539. Dorantes’ journey is one perspective to begin to understand the many facets of Florida’s history, especially in the search to appreciate isolated villages like Eatonville. Too much of the Florida story emphasizes the northern panhandle of Anglo plantation owners in the nineteenth century at the expense of the Spanish and French explorers of the previous two centuries, even moreso the civilizations maintained by the Creeks, Seminoles, and African maroons during the antebellum period. As late as 1860, Orange County remained beyond the framework of the state’s reliance on plantations. Only 163 enslaved Africans lived in the area at the start of the Civil War. Their estimated market value at the time equivalent to almost 2.75 million USD in contemporary terms – a backwater with little connection to the nation’s struggle for freedom and democracy. By 1890, increased settlement in the region began to change and central Florida became more important to the state economy. While the emergence of Tampa as an industrial and commercial center dominated the region, some entrepreneurs began to explore eastward into Orange County. It was these pioneers who laid the foundation for a surge in commercial value as the county’s asset value approached 14.7 million USD (adjusted for inflation).
This growth was the seed of the economic transformation that redefined the region through the first half of the twentieth century. In many ways, the area surrounding Eatonville became a luxury retreat for the commercial innovators along Florida’s gulf coast. The massive wealth generated by segregated industrialism before 1930 also attracted hundreds of tourists from places like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Florida as a whole benefited tremendously from this seasonal migration and the creation of small towns for these tourist, but the suburban transformation of Orange County between 1890 and 1930 cannot be overstated. A sleepy, isolated, rural area became a hub for upper-middle class consumer lifestyles. As a result, the region emerged as a half-billion-dollar ($554 million) powerhouse by 1939. Within this affluence, Eatonville existed as a pocket of African American dignity and respectability, largely due to the stable employment provided by the resort economy. The legacy of African American leadership in the town enabled dreams of economic autonomy and an end of racial segregation and discrimination by 1950. Yet, as many other, similar communities discovered in the second half of the twentieth century, the victorious struggles for inclusion and integration were not sufficient to achieve these early visions of equality. Despite growing African American and Latino populations through the early twenty-first century, virtually none of the regional economic development created sustainable, small businesses or industries in Eatonville. As a result, while Florida is a nearly $8 trillion economy and Orange County (alone) was worth nearly $700 billion in 2012, black enclaves like Eatonville still struggle with unemployment, poverty, rampant incarceration, and massive racial wealth disparities. Until global economic autonomy becomes a reality for African Americans, there is no chance to achieve any permanent victory over the legacies of white supremacy.
Dr. Walter Greason’s research focuses on the comparative, economic analysis of slavery, industrialization, and suburbanization. He serves as the Treasurer for the Society for American City and Regional Planning History. His groundbreaking book, Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey, won the Best Work of Non-Fiction award from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance in 2014. More recently, the edited collection, The American Economy, (completed with Melissa Ziobro and William Gorman in 2016), shows the evolution of market strategies in both the public and private sectors between 1749 and 2013.