Group files lawsuit to try and stop sale of land in Eatonville: Here's why

Update (March 31): The deal between a housing developer and Orange County Public Schools to purchase land in Eatonville that previously housed the historic Robert Hungerford School has fallen through. The contract has been terminated and OCPS said it has decided not to "extend or entertainment other bids at this time," citing respect of the various viewpoints expressed on the sale itself.

"This decision presents us with a new opportunity to collaborate with the Eatonville community to preserve and celebrate the Town’s historic and cultural significance as the oldest incorporated Black town in the U.S.," OCSP said in a statement, adding that it will consider all available options.

Original story:

A national civil rights organization is suing Orange County Public Schools over its pending sale of a large piece of land in Eatonville, Florida.

The Robert Hungerford School opened in 1897 to provide education for African American students who otherwise would have few options to go to school.

Today, all that's left is a wide-open plot of land near Interstate 4, land that is owned by Orange County Public Schools. And a deal is underway to sell that land from OCPS to a developer who wants to build hundreds of homes, which could be completed on Friday.

"There is no doubt that if that development, mixed-used residential development were to go forward, the historic town of Eatonville would be erased," said N.Y. Nathiri, the executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a lawsuit to try and stop the sale, contending that the decades-old deed restriction still stands, and that the land can only be used for educational purposes.

The group believes the land could be used to create a cultural destination, and something to bring revenue to the small town.

"There’s already identified an economic path for prosperity in Eatonville, and that has so much to do with cultural heritage tourism," Nathiri said.

Sean Wallace, who has lived in Eatonville his whole life, said he wants to see the school be re-built eventually.

Mayor Angie Gardner said she's many ideas from her constituents about possibilities for the vacant site.

"It’s everything from entertainment, museum, amphitheater, grocery store, educational facility," she said.

For Nathiri, the lawsuit could be the last shot to try and stop the sale from moving forward.

"Your heart thumps a little bit, you just hope that Orange County Public Schools has somehow listened to the citizens here, you hope that the developers might decide to change their mind," Mayor Gardner said.

FOX 35 reached out to the district for comment on the lawsuit, however, a district spokesperson said the district cannot comment on pending litigation.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information that the deal has been terminated, as well as a statement from Orange County Public Schools.