Zora Neale Hurston
January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960
Notable: Author & Anthropologist
Zora Neale Hurston is believed to have been born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891. Hurston herself claimed in her biography that Eatonville, Florida was her place of birth. But it’s more likely that she was born in Alabama and moved to Eatonville as a toddler and had no recollection of her time in Alabama.
Both of Hurston’s parents, Lucy Potts Hurston and John Cornelius Hurston, had been slaves in Alabama. In time her mother’s family had become landowners and she worked as a school teacher before getting married. However, her father came from a poor family and worked as a sharecropper which led to her mother’s family disapproving of the marriage. Yet, the couple persevered and welcomed Hurston as their fifth child. Upon relocating to Eatonville, Hurston’s father supported the family as a carpenter and eventually became a Baptist preacher and was elected to be the town’s mayor.
Eatonville was quite special as it was the first incorporated all-Black town in America. Being not just a Black section of town but rather an official Black town with Black leadership meant that the social norms that were observed elsewhere had no place in Eatonville. Thus, despite the various systems dedicated to promoting the idea of Black inferiority and White superiority, Hurston enjoyed a childhood that was free of these limitations. Being surrounded by many examples of Black success combined with growing up in a large house on a generous plot of land gave her a positive start to life.
Hurston’s mother encouraged her children to dream big and pursue their goals but as a preacher, her father often tried to rein Hurston in. Unfortunately, Hurston’s life was forever changed by her mother’s sudden death when she was 13 years old. Adding to the trauma of her mother’s passing was her father’s speedy marriage to another woman with whom she didn’t get along. Just two weeks after her mother’s funeral, Hurston began a period of life that would see her being shuttled between different family members.
She was first sent to live with an older sister and brother in Jacksonville where she was enrolled in a boarding school. Up to this point, she had been attending school and was a good student but her father was inconsistent with paying the tuition and she was now exposed to the racism that existed beyond Eatonville. She moved to Nashville to care for the children of another brother who had become a doctor but he didn’t support her efforts to obtain an education. At the age of 16, she ran away to join a theater group as the star’s maid. This would provide life-changing exposure to the world of drama and sparked her interest in becoming a performer.
In 1917, while in Baltimore, Maryland, Hurston came down with a bout of appendicitis which caused her to take a break from the troupe while she recuperated. It was around this time that she began finagling her age as she needed to be a minor to attend public school. She was 26 years old but looked young enough to shave 10 years off her age and would continue the practice moving forward. Hurston enrolled at and completed her secondary education at Morgan Academy.
Yet it was while working on her associate degree at Howard University that she truly began her literary career. Hurston participated in the school’s student government and co-founded its newspaper. Professors at Howard encouraged her research and reconnection with the African diaspora. She connected with Alain Locke and joined a local literary group that featured future Black literary icons.
Heeding Locke’s advice that she contribute to literary journals, some of Hurston’s stories were published. Yet, as she began to win literary prizes and develop a following in the Black community, her work went mostly unnoticed by the mainstream literary world. In 1925 Hurston moved to New York City and settled in Harlem where she continued to win literary prizes. Hurston became a part of the area’s creative movement which would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Her home became a gathering place for creatives and she counted Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen as her friends.
Meeting one of the founders of Barnard College helped her gain admittance and a scholarship to attend the school. While there she studied anthropology with Franz Boas who encouraged her to return to Eatonville to do fieldwork. The plan was for her to record the cultural practices and overall heritage of Black people in her hometown before it was lost to history.
Despite all of her creative activity, Hurston was not making much money so finances were an issue. In 1927, she established a sponsorship agreement with a wealthy woman that lasted for several years and which provided funding for her research trips in exchange for the woman having strategic ownership of the resulting work. The agreement provided financial support for her work but at the expense of having to deal with a control freak.
The latter half of the 1920s would see the publication of several of Hurston’s short stories and articles. She would also become Barnard’s first Black graduate upon completion of her bachelor’s degree in 1928. She enrolled in a Ph.D. program in anthropology at Columbia University and during those two years also continued her studies with Boas. Hurston would travel throughout the South and the Caribbean to gather information about language, culture, and hoodoo/voodoo across the Black diaspora.
With increased financial pressure due to the Great Depression, Hurston settled on the idea of adapting her work for the stage. One of her plays, The Great Day, was staged in New York City but closed after one performance due to the lack of a producer and financing. Undefeated, she staged two plays at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida which featured locals from her hometown. While none of the plays were major successes, they fulfilled her dream of operating a Black theater company. The plays also indirectly brought attention from publishers as a result of the theater director submitting one of her short stories to a magazine.
Hurston moved once again to nearby Sanford to begin working on a novel in reply to publisher Bertram Lippincott’s request for submission. Hurston’s novel was accepted and her first two books, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and Mules and Men (1935) were published. But, it was her 1936 win of a Guggenheim Fellowship that would prove to be a game-changer as it financed her visits to Jamaica and Haiti. She began writing a story about her passionate relationship with her lover who inspired the development of the character Tea Cake. Written in seven weeks, Their Eyes Were Watching God was published a year later and became one of Hurston’s most popular novels.
The book would become popular in time but did not provide a financial windfall at the time of its release or within Hurston’s lifetime. It continued a trend that had begun when Hurston was still back in Harlem. Their Eyes Were Watching God and some of her other creations told the story of Black women and rural Black people who were largely ignored within literature at the time. Women, and Black women, in particular, were expected to be meek and mild primarily in the background if not completely out of sight.
Hurston’s work was criticized by other writers such as Richard Wright and her former friend Langston Hughes for allegedly pandering to White readers. Some of her characters were Black people from rural areas and she wrote their dialogue based on her personal experience and what she’d observed during her research. Some White critics regarded the characters and language as being stereotypical.
Yet, Hurston saw her characters as being unapologetically Black. While she collaborated with White people, Hurston opposed desegregation as she felt it would require Black people to assimilate into mainstream American culture, losing their own culture in the process. She believed it was more empowering to write Black characters who were immersed in their own lives and communities rather than the discrimination they faced from general society.
In 1938, Hurston published another book, Tell My Horse, but her career fizzled out. She found employment with the Works Progress Administration for a year and also interviewed former slaves for The Florida Negro. The 1942 release of her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road brought some renewed attention but nothing that sustained long-term.
Adding to Hurston’s problems was her being falsely accused of molesting a ten-year-old boy. The accusation would prove baseless due to Hurston’s passport confirming that she was in Honduras during the alleged time of the assault and the boy admitting that he’d lied. But the experience of the story being publicized was embarrassing and emotionally devastating for Hurston.
The last decade of Hurston’s life saw her living quietly with continued financial problems. She continued to write for magazines and newspapers and worked at times as a librarian, substitute teacher, and maid. Poor health resulted in multiple strokes in 1958 and she became a resident at a nursing home where she died on January 28, 1960.
After her death, funds had to be raised for Hurston’s funeral and she was buried in an unmarked grave. Her most recent creations had been rejected by publishers and most of her books that had been published were now out of print. Fortunately, some of her manuscripts were saved from being burned along with some of her other possessions. As had been the case during the last decades of her life, Zora Neale Hurston was largely forgotten.
But, inspired by her work, thirteen years later Alice Walker visited Hurston’s grave on which she placed a headstone. Two years later, Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. magazine which reawakened interest in Hurston. Since then, Hurston’s work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in particular, has enjoyed a place of honor in literature.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Zora Neale Hurston.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. April 23, 2021. https://www.biography.com/writer/zora-neale-hurston.
- Boyd, Valerie. n.d. “About Zora Neale Hurston.” Zora Neale Hurston. Accessed September 8, 2021. https://www.zoranealehurston.com/about/.
- Carpenter, Cheryl Dowe. 2021. “Zora Neale Hurston.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. March 8, 2021. http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/ARTICLE/h-1512.
- Lillios, Anna. n.d. “Hurston’s Life.” Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive. University of Central Florida. Accessed September 8, 2021. https://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/hurstonarchive/?p=hurstons-life.
- Norwood, Arlisha R. 2017. “Zora Neale Hurston.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/zora-hurston.
- “Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography.” 2021. Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography – Roundabout Theatre Company. May 13, 2021. https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/about/our-blog/zora-neale-hurston-a-biography/.
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