About Zora Neale Hurston

“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions."

     - Letter from Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen

© Carl Van Vechten

© Carl Van Vechten

Zora Neale Hurston knew how to make an entrance. On May 1, 1925, at a literary awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity magazine, the earthy Harlem newcomer turned heads and raised eyebrows as she claimed four awards: a second-place fiction prize for her short story “Spunk,” a second-place award in drama for her play Color Struck, and two honorable mentions.

The names of the writers who beat out Hurston for first place that night would soon be forgotten. But the name of the second-place winner buzzed on tongues all night, and for days and years to come. Lest anyone forget her, Hurston made a wholly memorable entrance at a party following the awards dinner. She strode into the room–jammed with writers and arts patrons, black and white–and flung a long, richly colored scarf around her neck with dramatic flourish as she bellowed a reminder of the title of her winning play: “Colooooooor Struuckkkk!” Her exultant entrance literally stopped the party for a moment, just as she had intended. In this way, Hurston made it known that a bright and powerful presence had arrived. By all accounts, Zora Neale Hurston could walk into a roomful of strangers and, a few minutes and a few stories later, leave them so completely charmed that they often found themselves offering to help her in any way they could.

© Barbara Hurston Lewis, Faye Hurston, and Lois Gaston

© Barbara Hurston Lewis, Faye Hurston, and Lois Gaston

Gamely accepting such offers–and employing her own talent and scrappiness–Hurston became the most successful and most significant black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century. Over a career that spanned more than 30 years, she published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, numerous short stories, and several essays, articles and plays.

Born on Jan. 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. Her writings reveal no recollection of her Alabama beginnings. For Hurston, Eatonville was always home.

Established in 1887, the rural community near Orlando was the nation’s first incorporated black township. It was, as Hurston described it, “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.”

© Estate of Zora Neale Hurston

© Estate of Zora Neale Hurston

In Eatonville, Zora was never indoctrinated in inferiority, and she could see the evidence of black achievement all around her. She could look to town hall and see black men, including her father, John Hurston, formulating the laws that governed Eatonville. She could look to the Sunday Schools of the town’s two churches and see black women, including her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, directing the Christian curricula. She could look to the porch of the village store and see black men and women passing worlds through their mouths in the form of colorful, engaging stories.

Growing up in this culturally affirming setting in an eight-room house on five acres of land, Zora had a relatively happy childhood, despite frequent clashes with her preacher-father, who sometimes sought to “squinch” her rambunctious spirit, she recalled. Her mother, on the other hand, urged young Zora and her seven siblings to “jump at de sun.” Hurston explained, “We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”

Hurston’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end, though, when her mother died in 1904. Zora was only 13 years old. “That hour began my wanderings,” she later wrote. “Not so much in geography, but in time. Then not so much in time as in spirit.”

After Lucy Hurston’s death, Zora’s father remarried quickly–to a young woman whom the hotheaded Zora almost killed in a fistfight–and seemed to have little time or money for his children. “Bare and bony of comfort and love,” Zora worked a series of menial jobs over the ensuing years, struggled to finish her schooling, and eventually joined a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer. In 1917, she turned up in Baltimore; by then, she was 26 years old and still hadn’t finished high school. Needing to present herself as a teenager to qualify for free public schooling, she lopped 10 years off her life–giving her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901. Once gone, those years were never restored: From that moment forward, Hurston would always present herself as at least 10 years younger than she actually was. Apparently, she had the looks to pull it off. Photographs reveal that she was a handsome, big-boned woman with playful yet penetrating eyes, high cheekbones, and a full, graceful mouth that was never without expression.

Zora also had a fiery intellect, an infectious sense of humor, and “the gift,” as one friend put it, “of walking into hearts.” Zora used these talents–and dozens more–to elbow her way into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, befriending such luminaries as poet Langston Hughes and popular singer/actress Ethel Waters. Though Hurston rarely drank, fellow writer Sterling Brown recalled, “When Zora was there, she was the party.” Another friend remembered Hurston’s apartment–furnished by donations she solicited from friends–as a spirited “open house” for artists. All this socializing didn’t keep Hurston from her work, though. She would sometimes write in her bedroom while the party went on in the living room.

By 1935, Hurston–who’d graduated from Barnard College in 1928–had published several short stories and articles, as well as a novel (Jonah’s Gourd Vine) and a well-received collection of black Southern folklore (Mules and Men). But the late 1930s and early ’40s marked the real zenith of her career. She published her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937; Tell My Horse, her study of Caribbean Voodoo practices, in 1938; and another masterful novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, in 1939. When her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published in 1942, Hurston finally received the well-earned acclaim that had long eluded her. That year, she was profiled in Who’s Who in America, Current Biography and Twentieth Century Authors. She went on to publish another novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, in 1948.

Still, Hurston never received the financial rewards she deserved. (The largest royalty she ever earned from any of her books was $943.75.) So when she died on Jan. 28, 1960–at age 69, after suffering a stroke–her neighbors in Fort Pierce, Florida, had to take up a collection for her February 7 funeral. The collection didn’t yield enough to pay for a headstone, however, so Hurston was buried in a grave that remained unmarked until 1973.

That summer, a young writer named Alice Walker traveled to Fort Pierce to place a marker on the grave of the author who had so inspired her own work. Walker found the Garden of Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery at the dead end of North 17th Street, abandoned and overgrown with yellow-flowered weeds.

Back in 1945, Hurston had foreseen the possibility of dying without money–and she’d proposed a solution that would have benefited her and countless others. Writing to W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she called the “Dean of American Negro Artists,” Hurston suggested “a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead” on 100 acres of land in Florida. Citing practical complications, Du Bois wrote a curt reply discounting Hurston’s persuasive argument. “Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness,” she’d urged. “We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored.”

As if impelled by those words, Walker bravely entered the snake-infested cemetery where Hurston’s remains had been laid to rest. Wading through waist-high weeds, she soon stumbled upon a sunken rectangular patch of ground that she determined to be Hurston’s grave. Unable to afford the marker she wanted–a tall, majestic black stone called “Ebony Mist”–Walker chose a plain gray headstone instead. Borrowing from a Jean Toomer poem, she dressed the marker up with a fitting epitaph: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”

-- By Valerie Boyd

  • January 7, 1891
    Born in Notasulga, Alabama, the fifth of eight children, to John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a former schoolteacher.
  • September 1917 - June 1918
    Attends Morgan Academy in Baltimore, completing the high school requirements.
  • January 7, 1891
    Born in Notasulga, Alabama, the fifth of eight children, to John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a former schoolteacher.
  • September 1917 - June 1918
    Attends Morgan Academy in Baltimore, completing the high school requirements.
  • Summer 1918
    Works as a waitress in a nightclub and a manicurist in a black-owned barbershop that only serves whites.
  • 1918 - 1919
    Attends Howard Prep School, Washington, D.C.
  • 1919 - 1924
    Attends Howard University; receives an associate degree in 1920.
  • 1921
    Publishes her first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in Stylus, the campus literary society’s magazine.
  • December 1924
    Publishes “Drenched in Light,” a short story, in Opportunity.
  • 1925
    Submits a story, “Spunk,” and a play, Color Struck, to Opportunity’s literary contest. Both win second-place award; publishes “Spunk” in the June number.
  • 1925 - 1927
    Attends Barnard College, studying anthropology with Franz Boas.
  • 1926
    Begins field work for Boas in Harlem.
  • January 1926
    Publishes “John Redding Goes to Sea” in Opportunity.
  • Summer 1926
    Organizes Fire! With Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman; they publish only one issue, in November 1926. The issue includes Hurston’s “Sweat.”
  • August 1926
    Publishes “Muttsy” in Opportunity.
  • September 1926
    Publishes “Possum or Pig” in the Forum.
  • September - November 1926
    Publishes “The Eatonville Anthology” in the Messenger.
  • 1927
    Publishes The First One, a play, in Charles S. Johnson’s E_bony and Topaz_.
  • February 1927
    Goes to Florida to collect folklore.
  • May 19,1927
    Marries Herbert Sheen.
  • September 1927
    First visits Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, seeking patronage.
  • October 1927
    Publishes an account of the black settlement at St. Augustine, Florida, in the Journal of Negro History; also in this issue: “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver.”
  • December 1927
    Signs a contract with Mason, enabling her to return to the South to collect folklore.
  • 1928
    Satirized as “Sweetie Mae Carr” in Wallace Thurman’s novel about the Harlem Renaissance Infants of the Spring; receives a bachelor of arts degree from Barnard.
  • January 1928
    Relations with Sheen break off.
  • May 1928
    Publishes “How It Feels to be Colored Me” in The World Tomorrow.
  • 1930 - 1932
    Organizes the field notes that become Mules and Men.
  • May - June 1930
    Works on the play Mule Bone with Langston Hughes.
  • 1931
    Publishes “Hoodoo in America” in the Journal of American Folklore.
  • February 1931
    Breaks with Langston Hughes over the authorship of Mule Bone.
  • July 7,1931
    Divorces Sheen.
  • September 1931
    Writes for a theatrical revue called Fast and Furious.
  • January 1932
    Writes and stages a theatrical revue called The Great Day, first performed on January 10 on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre; works with the creative literature department of Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, to produce a concert program of Negro music.
  • 1933
    Writes “The Fiery Chariot.”
  • January 1933
    Stages From Sun to Sun (a version of Great Day) at Rollins College.
  • August 1933
    Publishes “The Gilded Six-Bits” in Story.
  • 1934
    Publishes six essays in Nancy Cunard’s anthology, Negro.
  • January 1934
    Goes to Bethune-Cookman College to establish a school of dramatic arts “based on pure Negro expression.”
  • May 1934
    Publishes Jonah’s Gourd Vine, originally titled Big Nigger; it is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
  • September 1934
    Publishes “The Fire and the Cloud” in the Challenge.
  • November 1934
    Singing Steel (a version of Great Day) performed in Chicago.
  • January 1935
    Begins to study for a Ph.D in anthropology at Columbia University on a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation.
  • August 1935
    Joins the WPA Federal Theater Project as a “dramatic coach.”
  • October 1935
    Mules and Men published.
  • March 1936
    Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study West Indian obeah practices.
  • April - September 1936
    In Jamaica.
  • September - March 1937
    In Haiti; writes Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks.
  • May 1937
    Returns to Haiti on a renewed Guggenheim.
  • September 1937
    Returns to the United States; Their Eyes Were Watching God published, September 18.
  • February - March 1938
    Writes Tell My Horse; it is published the same year.
  • April 1939
    Joins the Federal Writers Project in Florida to work on The Florida Negro.
  • 1939
    Publishes “Now Take Noses” in Cordially Yours.
  • 1939
    Marries Albert Price.
  • June 1939
    Receives an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Morgan State college.
  • Summer 1939
    Hired at a drama instructor by North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham; meets Paul Green, professor of drama, at the University of North Carolina.
  • November 1939
    Moses, Man of the Mountain published.
  • February 1940
    Files for divorce from Price, though the two are reconciled briefly.
  • Summer 1940
    Makes a folklore-collecting trip to South Carolina.
  • Spring - July 1941
    Writes Dust Tracks on a Road.
  • July 1941
    Publishes “Cock Robin, Beale Street” in the Southern Literary Messenger.
  • October 1941-January 1942
    Works as a story consultant at Paramount Pictures.
  • July 1942
    Publishes “Story in Harlem Slang” in the American Mercury.
  • September 5, 1942
    Publishes a profile of Lawrence Silas in the Saturday Evening Post.
  • November 1942
    Dust Tracks on a Road published.
  • February 1943
    Awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations for Dust Tracks; on the cover of the Saturday Review.
  • March 1943
    Receives Howard University’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
  • May 1943
    Publishes “The ‘Pet Negro’ Syndrome” in the American Mercury.
  • November 1943
    Divorce from Price granted.
  • 1944
    Marries James Howell Pitts.
  • June 1944
    Publishes “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience” in the Negro Digest.
  • 1945
    Writes Mrs. Doctor; it is rejected by Lippincott.
  • March 1945
    Publishes “The Rise of the Begging Joints” in the American Mercury.
  • December 1945
    Publishes “Crazy for This Democracy” in the Negro Digest.
  • 1947
    Publishes a review of Robert Tallant’s Voodoo in New Orleans in the Journal of American Folklore.
  • May 1947
    Goes to British Honduras to research black communities in Central America; writes Seraph on the Suwanee; stays in Honduras until March 1948.
  • October 1948
    Seraph on the Suwanee published.
  • March 1950
    Publishes “Conscience of the Court” in the Saturday Evening Post, while working as a maid in Rivo Island, Florida.
  • April 1950
    Publishes “What White Publishers Won’t Print” in the Saturday Evening Post.
  • November 1950
    Publishes “I Saw Negro Votes Peddled” in the American Legion magazine.
  • Winter 1950 - 1951
    Moves to Belle Glade, Florida.
  • June 1951
    Publishes “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism” in the American Legion magazine.
  • December 8, 1951
    Publishes “A Negro Voter Sizes up Taft” in the Saturday Evening Post.
  • 1952
    Hired by the Pittsburgh Courier to cover the Ruby McCollum case.
  • May 1956
    Receives an award for “education and human relations” at Bethune-Cookman College.
  • June 1956
    Works as a librarian at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.
  • 1957 - 1959
    Writes a column on “Hoodoo and Black Magic” for the Fort Pierce Chronicle.
  • 1958
    Works as a substitute teacher at Lincoln Park Academy, Fort Pierce.
  • Early 1959
    Suffers a stroke.
  • October 1959
    Forced to enter the St. Lucie County Welfare Home.
  • January 28, 1960
    Dies in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home of “hypertensive heart disease”; buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, Fort Pierce.
  • August 1973
    Alice Walker discovers and marks Hurston’s grave.
  • March 1975
    Walker publishes “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” in Ms., launching a Hurston revival.