Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South

Over a career that spanned more than 30 years, novelist, folklorist, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, numerous short stories, several essays, articles and plays becoming one of the most significant black writers of the 20th century.

No one really knows exactly when she was born. Until the 1970s, not much was known about her life other than what was contained in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. It’s presumed that she was born January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama.

Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, the oldest black-incorporated municipality in the United States on August 18, 1887 when she was still a toddler… the setting for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The family lived in a large, eight-bedroom house surrounded by flowers and fruit trees. Behind was a big vegetable garden, a little beyond the chicken coops. In front, gardenia bushes framed the path to the gate, and a wood fence divided the yard from the dirt road that ran through.

Her father, John Hurston, was a carpenter, sharecropper, and minister who served three terms as Eatonville’s mayor. Her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, died on September 18, 1904. Neale Hurston joined a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer paying $10 per week, plus expenses.

When her connection with the Gilbert & Sullivan troupe ended in 1916, she moved with her sister, Sarah, in Baltimore. By then, she was 26 years old and hadn’t finished high school.  She gave her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901 and enrolled at Morgan Academy. After graduation in 1918, she entered Howard University.

Zora Neale Hurston arrived in Harlem during the Great Migration. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College, she won a Guggenheim fellowship to study indigenous religious practices in Jamaica and Haiti.

During her lifetime, she published four novels; Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays.

She was evicted from her apartment the same day that she received an acceptance letter for Jonah's Gourd Vine.  Her most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the story of Janie Crawford, a black woman who embarks on a search for her own self, was written in rented a house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in September 1936 and completed in seven weeks.

Among the challenges that Janie faced is the devastating hurricane, patterned after the 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane that killed nearly 2,000 people in the Florida Everglades. The largest royalty Neale Hurston ever earned from any of her books was $943.75.

Zora Neale Hurston died after suffering a stroke on January 28, 1960 in Fort Pierce. Her family, friends, and neighbors took up a collection to pay for her funeral and burial in an unmarked grave in the black section of the Garden of the Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery.  The grave remained unmarked until 1973 when novelist Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, found the Garden of Heavenly Rest at the dead end of North 17th Street, abandoned and overgrown with yellow-flowered weeds.

I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?

Like this post? Stop by and read Maya Angelou: Poetry is Music Written for the Human Voice.Considered one of the greatest writers in the United States, Maya Angelou was the first African-American to work on the streetcars in San Francisco. She was the first African-American woman to recite her poetry at a U.S. presidential inauguration, the first African-American women to make the non-fiction bestseller’s list, the first African-American woman to have an original screenplay produced for the movie Georgia, Georgia in 1972.

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