Eatonville, the tiny Orange County town incorporated in 1887 by newly freed slaves, was among those that submitted a bid last month. Town leaders hope Eatonville’s historic status as the nation’s oldest Black-run town, coupled with the tourist juggernaut that is neighboring Orlando, will give it an edge.

But many are wary of the state’s plan, questioning how Florida’s recent history would make it a good steward of a Black history museum.

In the past two years, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration rejected the Advanced Placement African American studies course for Florida’s public schools, passed an “anti-woke” law that critics say limits discussions about race in classrooms, and adopted new school standards that teach children that during slavery “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

It prompted public outcry.

“Where are they going to get the history from? The governor, with who he is and what they’re changing in the school system?” said Julian Johnson, an Eatonville resident.

A museum might be a good fit for Eatonville, Johnson said, but only if “there are no strings attached” and “the right history” is displayed.

“Yes, we have a lot of questions. I think all of us who deal with Black history have a lot of questions,” said Vickie Oldham, president of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, which includes a small museum.

But Oldham said she helped put together a bid to put the state museum in Sarasota because she wants the history she’s worked to document to be shared with a wider audience. Many might not know how formerly enslaved people who fled Alabama, the Carolinas and Georgia found freedom until the early 1800s in then Spanish-controlled Florida or how in the 1950s Black residents staged “wade-ins” to protest that the beautiful Gulf Coast beaches were open only to whites.

“Because if they are really going to do this,” she said, “I want our stories in this.”

Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, who sponsored the museum legislation, insists it will accurately tell Black history and will be a chance to showcase Black achievements in the arts, aviation, the military and science, among other fields.

“If it’s my concept, it’s not a civil rights museum and it’s not a slavery museum. It’s the history of Black folks in Florida,” Antone said. “This would be done by historians and experts. The Department of State and Gov. DeSantis would not be deciding what goes into this museum.”

Legislation OK’d last year

Last spring, DeSantis signed legislation creating a task force to kickstart planning for a Florida Museum of Black History. The group, which began meeting in September, by July 1 must recommend a location and ideas for the museum’s design, exhibits and finances.

Antone thinks Eatonville is the perfect location, and town and Orange County leaders agree.

They think the museum should sit on 10 acres that are part of the former site of the historic Robert F. Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, a private school founded in 1889 to educate Black students unwelcome in the region’s whites-only schools.

Hungerford later became a public school, which closed in 2009. The buildings were demolished in 2020 and the site, surrounded by chain-link fencing, is now the subject of controversy and a lawsuit.

The Hungerford property is owned by Orange County Public Schools, which worked with the town to sell it to a developer last year. The sale was scuttled, however, when upset residents said it would destroy Eatonville’s legacy by bringing in housing most could not afford.

The deal prompted a civil rights group to sue OCPS, seeking to stop the sale and to get a judge to declare the school district could not sell land meant to be used for educational purposes.

The Hungerford land was acquired by OCPS in 1951 — for a steal, some residents say and with the help of a segregationist judge, the Orlando Sentinel reported last year — when the private trust that ran it could no longer afford to do so.

Some town residents want the school district to donate the land to Eatonville, though OCPS lawyers and other attorneys have disagreed on whether that would be legal. In the past two weeks, district and town leaders have been talking with the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, which filed the lawsuit, on ways to make the 10 acres free for museum development.

Eatonville is a small town, but it sits at “the center of Florida tourism,” not far from downtown Orlando, its international airport and its theme parks, making it accessible for tourists who want to add a cultural visit to their vacation, the town said in its bid to the state.

As the childhood home of author Zora Neale Hurston, and an annual festival in her honor, “Eatonville is recognized as a major center of Black heritage and culture,” and a Black history museum would bring even more visitors, it added.

Eatonville is a “great site and location to bring this state museum,” said Demetrius Pressley, the town’s chief administrative officer, at a task force meeting in January. “It is living history, Eatonville is.”

Others seek project

Seminole County made a pitch for the museum too, as did Jackson County, Nassau County and St. Johns County, which highlighted historic St. Augustine in its bid. Opa Locka/Miami Dade County, Panama Beach/Bay County and the city of Sarasota, along with Sarasota and Manatee counties, wants the museum, too.

Several communities that initially made presentations to the state task force decided not to submit a bid, however, among them Palm Beach County.

That pleased Cora Perry and other alumni of Roosevelt High School, Palm Beach’s first Black high school during segregation. Though they want the closed campus turned into a museum and community center, they want local history displayed and do not trust the state’s intentions.

“My question is, Why are you then taking Black history out of the schools and then you’re going to build a state Black history museum? It doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.

There is not yet any state money earmarked for the museum. Antone said he would push for that in next year’s Legislative session, proposing $30 million.

If Eatonville is the chosen location, he wants another $30 million paid for by Orange’s tourist tax and more raised in donations.

Small museums worry

There are about 30 small Black history museums already in Florida, and those who run them worry how much a new statewide museum might cost and if it might jeopardize their work. Many of these museums — housed in historic homes, clubs and schools — were started and paid for privately but now receive some state money.

“I don’t want our funding to go away because we do so much and add so much value,” said Sandra Rooks, who helped found the Pinellas County African American History Museum in an old all-Black school, at the task force’s first meeting.

Pasha Baker, CEO of the Goldsboro Westside Community Historical Association in Sanford, runs a small Black history museum that was started, and for years paid for, by her aunt who was upset the city’s municipal museum did not include the history of the Black Goldsboro community.

She also told the state task force she didn’t want a statewide museum to divert money from the small ones that have worked for years to preserve and showcase Black history.

Baker said the state’s plans are hard to judge so far.

“It’s an idea,” she said in a phone interview. “Where’s the funding? Where’s the land? And how will this be sustained?” And can the state do a honest job with Black history? “That history has to be told accurately, and it has to be told truthfully.”

The task force, appointed by DeSantis and state lawmakers, plans to meet on April 19 to whittle down the eight bids to up to four. Then it will have to wrestle with the other questions.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, is the task force’s chair and a founder of a small Black history museum in Orlando. She tried to assure the small museums’ leaders that she does not envision a state museum coming at their expense.

She also acknowledged the bigger questions that will dog the state’s plans.

“What is the story we’re going to tell? she said at a March meeting. “I know there is some mistrust of something that is initiated by the state and whether or not it is going to accurately tell the story of African American history, as experienced in Florida.”