EATONVILLE Feb.1,1999 -- Just 10 miles east of downtown Orlando lies the rural town of Eatonville. The oldest incorporated black town in the United States, Eatonville is home to about 3,000 and the hometown of noted African-American writer, folklorist and anthropolgist Zora Neale Hurston.
Though Hurston died in poverty in 1960 with virtually no recognition as an accomplished writer, the citizens of Eatonville have revived her unique spirit by hosting the annual Zora Neale Hurston Arts and Huamnities Festival.
The town that inspired Hurston dedicates five days at the end of January each year to celebrate the rich African-American culture that shaped her work.
"This festival is excellent because it brings to life Zora and her connection with young people," said Arlene Clayton-Mallet, an educationm graduate student at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Clayton-Mallet remembers first hearing about Hurston when she was an undergraduate at Alverno College in Milwaukee, when a friend sent her a postcard with Hurston's picture and the word "joy" written on it. That simple postcard sparked her interest in Hurston and "10 years later here I am."
"Everybody can be Zora. You can be Zora. I am Zora. It's about knowing who you are. It's about understanding 'the spunk and walking with pride. When I'm here I'm looking through Zora's eyes. I'm walking with Zora. I'm walking with 'spunk.'"
The "spunk" Clayton-Mallet is talking about is actual piece of short fiction Hurston wrote in 1925. It was adapted by the theater department at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando into a musical.
"The crowd was great. I think we lived up to Zora Neale Hurston, and that's what we're here for," said Michael Scott, a senior at DPHS who won first place in the Act-So competition sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People this summer.
An estimated 150,000 people attended the annual festival.
Young and old, black and white came from around the nation to experience the visual arts, dramatic presentations, music, intellectual discussions and ethnic food.
"It's intergenerational. There's is everyone here from babies to grandparents," said Leia Lewis, who work for the Louisianan Endowment for the Arts.
"Everyone is warm and giving and genuinely interested in making meaningful connections and sharing information. It's truly inspiring."
The street festival that caught most visitors' attention was a cross-cultural event that housed more than 150 vendors. Booths ranged from an ethnic food court to an African-American beauty secrets stand to a tent set up by the Democracy Forum, a group dedicated to revealing the untold facts about racial injustices that have occured in recent Florida history.
An art exhibition was also another highlight of the street festival. Artists from around the country came to Eatonville to display their craftsmanship.
"I love the festival," said Scarecrow, a graphic artist from the Black Art Gallery in Harlem. "I've never seen this many black people gathered in peace and harmony."
More than 10,000 students of all ages from throughout Florida came to pay homage to Hurston.
Greg Hardee, a police officer in Lakeland, brought 30 elementary school children to the Street Festival as part of a Lakeland Police Youth Athletic League project.
"We had to drive a long time to get here, but it's definitely worthit so the kids can experience a little bit of their culture."
The festival was run mainly by hundreds of volunteers who worked as ushers, ticket takers and gate workers.
"When I was growing up, there wasn't anything like this," said Jesse Runner of Orlando, who volunteered three days parking cars. "I'm doing better now and want to give back."
Hurston's work was actually reserected and introduced into the literary mainstream in the 1970s by modern storytellers such as novelist Alice Walker ("The Color Purple")and biographer Robert Hemenway. Their research gave way to eye-opening accounts of Hurston's life and began the resurgance of her work in America.
Most noted for her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Hurston earned her role as leading member of the black cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1940s during the peak of her career.
Leia Lewis, from Louisiana, feels an attachment to Hurston and said future generations need to know where their family roots lie so Afican-Americans can be proud of their heritage.
"The Zora Neale Hurston Festival is about rememberance, so this rich culture is remembered and celebrated."