Ella Augusta Johnson Dinkins, Champion Of Zora Neale Hurston's Hometown, Dies At 102Breaking News
tags: Florida, African American history, Zora Neale Hurston, Black towns
Ella Augusta Johnson Dinkins was the oldest resident of Eatonville, Fla., one of the oldest Black incorporated towns. She died last month at home in her sleep or, as town residents put it, "on her own terms." She was 102.
Dinkins was a fiery elder who loved God, gardening, and a good town committee meeting. She also knew the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston and helped initiate the festival that has brought more than a million people to the area since its start in 1990.
She would tell you in a second that the town barely had a light, and that Hurston, its most famous resident, was telling the truth when she described Eatonville as "a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty of guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse."
"She wasn't one of these people that put on. She wasn't a put-on person," Dinkins said of Hurston.
The renowned author was born in Notasulga, Ala., in 1891 and moved with her family to Eatonville about a year later. In her novel Mules and Men, published in 1935, Hurston recounted the trials and triumphs of life in the town, referring to Dinkins as one of the "pretty Johnson girls."
And, as Dinkins recalled in a 2002 C-SPAN interview, everyone knew each other in Eatonville.
"We didn't have any roads out here at all," she said. "Everything was pathways and trails."
"She wanted them to be the best that they could be"
Dinkins herself was born in Orlando in 1918, but arrived in Eatonville in 1930. Her father, an architect, relocated his family to the small Black town after losing everything in the Great Depression. The bedroom community, founded by freed slaves in 1887, represented a chance for the Dinkins and others to begin anew.
Dinkins' father helped build the town's first elementary school. Her mother, who was a student of W.E.B Du Bois, was a town matriarch. They were symbols of Black excellence and autonomy, and Dinkins carried that torch.
She sold penny insurance policies to Black families when white companies would not. She raised money to buy the first incubators for Black babies in the segregated hospital. All 80 years that Dinkins could participate in an election, she did.
"Ella Augusta Johnson Dinkins was an extraordinary woman, but in the context of her time, we see that she was emblematic of Black women," says N.Y. Nathiri, one of Dinkins' three children, two of whom are still alive.
The Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities was one of Dinkins' biggest contributions to Eatonville.
"What we have done over the past 30 years is really build the story of cultural heritage tourism," Nathiri says. "See, it was my mother who really helped to bring this to my attention."
Dinkins spent her final years advocating for the inclusion of historic Black towns and settlements in state, national, and international conversations about cultural preservation. She traveled to conferences on her own dime, serving as an informal town ambassador and welcoming delegations from other regions, including continental Africa.
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