Landscape Architect’s Research Helps Save Historic Black Towns

 

In 1989, Everett Fly, BAr ’75, a landscape architect from San Antonio, flew to central Florida and drove to the Orange County clerk’s office. There, he requested a map showing Eatonville, one of the oldest black towns in the United States.

Fly’s work in preservation had already brought him to historic black communities and sites, including Nicodemus, Kan., and the Winks Panorama Lodge in Gilpin County, Colo., the sole Rocky Mountain resort open to African-Americans between 1928 and 1960. The trip to Florida would spark repeated visits, most recently in January, when officials held the first event in a series of celebrations leading up to Eatonville’s 125th birthday in August.

Nine miles north of Orlando, Eatonville was founded in 1887, 22 years after the end of the Civil War, as a place where blacks could own their own land and property.

Today, with a population of about 2,500, Eatonville is prized for its historic status and longevity in a state that readily embraced Jim Crow laws.

Eatonville was also the childhood home of writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Dust Tracks on the Road. The road Hurston referred to became Kennedy Boulevard, the central two-lane thoroughfare through town.

In 1989, Orange County wanted to widen the road into four lanes. Residents vehemently opposed the idea, arguing that the addition of extra lanes would destroy the historic layout of Eatonville, making the tiny town an artery for traffic instead of a destination for visitors. A friend of a friend heard about Fly’s work in Kansas and Colorado. How about coming to Florida?

That’s how he found himself walking up to the desk of the clerk’s office in downtown Orlando.

Fly asked to see some old maps for his research. An employee brought him a map from 1950.

“Do you have anything from 1850? Sure enough, we found an 1854 map of Orange County,” Fly recalls.

What he found amazed him. He was staring at the outlines of present-day Eatonville on a map predating its founding by about 30 years. He told town officials, “This is your historic element, not a house or a grand structure. Land.”

“This road or trail has been here since the 1850s, and this is Zora’s road. If you let the road go, you know you’ve lost your footing, your foundation, your historic fabric,” Fly says.

With the aid of Fly’s dogged data collecting, local organizers beat back the road widening. Fly also stayed to help the town council pass an ordinance governing future decisions on properties, then put his research toward getting Eatonville on the National Register of Historic Places.

“His data served as the basis for that nomination. That in itself was a major accomplishment. He documented 200-some odd pages, every building site in Eatonville that he felt made the case to the register,” says N.Y. Nathiri with the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community.

The contribution to Eatonville was not his first, nor would it be his last. Fly has done similar work on historic black sites, structures, enclaves, neighborhoods, suburbs, towns, villages, resorts, and settlements across the U.S. He has worked for, among others, the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, local governments and state historical societies.

Taken together, his preservation projects constitute a sub-narrative of black life in America. They tell us about the places where, amid the most vitriolic of times, blacks settled and thrived. They narrate the places where African-Americans stayed and started families, established businesses, and took vacations.

“Everett really is a pioneer,” says Nathiri.

And everything grew from a homework assignment.

The class at Harvard’s Graduate School of Architecture and Design, where Fly went in the fall of 1975 after earning an undergraduate degree at UT that May, was called the Built American Landscape. The term refers to what are otherwise called vernacular landscapes, or places that contain some thought and planning without a recognizable classical design or flashy appearance. Professor Jon Brinkerhoff Jackson, who would later correspond with Fly for 17 years as a mentor and friend, taught the course. It wasn’t long before Fly noticed something about the lectures that bothered him.

“In the class, he never talked about black folks owning their own land, building their own buildings,” Fly says. “My grandparents, their little black community, they built the church, they built the school, they built the houses. So when it came time to do the term paper, I went to Jackson and I said ‘Why don’t you ever say anything about black people?’”

Jackson responded that the existing research is scant and fragmented. Fly would be hard-pressed to obtain a comprehensive guide from which to base his research. But he let Fly do his term paper on the subject and nabbed him a researcher’s pass to the rare books library at Harvard.

Fly scanned old newspapers, finding little one-liners about black towns. That’s where he first came across the name “Eatonville.” He wrote his paper, “Black Settlements in America.” Jackson praised the effort. Then he gave him the best advice a teacher can give a student: Don’t stop here.

From 1976 to 1989, when Fly first arrived in Eatonville, he applied for research grants and gathered more material. Word began to spread about this guy who showed up in towns with a camera in hand and, more like a reporter than a landscape architect, buttonholed people on the street for interviews. Right after graduating from Harvard, he was contacted by a caretaker at the storied resort in Colorado, Winks Panorama Lodge, a retreat 34 miles north of Denver where, from 1928 to 1960, when it closed, black families went trout fishing, took nature hikes, and stared across the Continental Divide.

Fly later found out that Hurston had vacationed there. Using public record documents and private papers that had survived, he arranged the maps and photographs that went into the nomination forms for the national register of historic places. It was approved for listing in 1981.

In the early 1980s, Fly traveled to Nicodemus, Kansas, where he tracked down information about black farmers who sold their goods to outlying communities. Working with the National Park Service, Fly helped found a visiting center, where a park ranger is now stationed to tell the untold story.

In what he calls his “real life,” Fly owns and operates his landscape architecture firm in San Antonio. He has worked on state projects like the restoration of the north ground of the capitol in Austin, and was appointed to review construction projects in San Antonio through the lens of historic preservation and city codes. He was part of a diverse mix of private sector types to serve on President Bill Clinton’s Committee on the Arts & the Humanities from 1994-2001.

But he keeps coming back to where he started with the paper for Jackson. On several occasions, Fly teamed up with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which empowers community leaders to save historic, commercial districts. The group has found that only 15 percent of the sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places are connected to minorities and women. A fraction of those tie in black history.

In an upcoming report, Brent Leggs, a field officer with the Boston-based preservation trust, writes that there are more than 87,525 individual buildings and historic districts listed in the National Register, with only 1,748 of them formally recognized for their contributions to African-American history and design.

Lauren Adkins, the trust’s assistant director, has worked with Fly three times. The first was in Baltimore, on a project to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue, once a hotbed of black vaudeville theater. But nobody was really sure what piece of that history to highlight. Should they try to rebuild the shopping district? The theater piece? The heritage tourism angle? Adkins told me that Fly was good at keeping expectations in check without offending anyone.

“He was such a calm member of the team. He was one of the ones that was able to say, let’s be realistic,” she says. “He’s just a great historian, which is such a rare attribute for an architect. Everett was one of the first architects of his generation who said there might be value in the buildings that were here before we got here.”

His methods haven’t changed all that much. The National Trust publishes an endangered resources list, and one of Fly’s latest areas of concern is Hobson City, Ala. The town was incorporated in 1889, only two years after Eatonville. A couple of courthouse fires consumed most of the pertinent city records, and the surrounding county has its eye on development projects. The prospect of jumping once more into the breach was appealing.

This time, Fly headed for the national archives in Washington, D.C. Hobson City is now using the historic maps Fly found to bolster the preservation project.

At the annual Zora! Fest in Eatonville this year, Fly helped premier a mobile tour of the town’s gardens. Guided walks are easy to accomplish in a place that is only 1.6 miles long. Local officials have been giving them to visitors for years as a small but steady source of revenue.

But this was the first organized garden tour. As a sort of preview, Fly drove me around one morning and gave history lessons on the historical significance of people’s yards. The first stop was the front section of a residential garden in which sugarcane leaned lazily in the still morning air.

Eatonville used to harvest the stalks and produce molasses by the crate. The agricultural venture was long gone, but the sugarcane was evidence that it once existed. We then went into an expansive backyard sweeping down onto a lake. This was the only entrance into the water for black residents of the area. Fly finds the narrative aspect of these cities in the most unlikely of places. In Eatonville, gardens can tell stories.

Photos from top: Eatonville, Fla.; Hobson City, Ala.; the O.C. Haley District in New Orleans; and the last two photos are both from Hobson City, Ala. Photos courtesy Joseph Freeman and Everett Fly.

 

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