A Moment in Black History
Zora Neal Hurston’s Rags to Riches to Rags Literary Odyssey
By Mondriahn Miller
Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, and controversial social critic, Zora Neale Hurston was undoubtedly one of the most talented, but discredited African-American writers of all time.
Born in Notasulga, Ala., on Jan. 7, 1891, Hurston was born to John and Lucy Ann Potts Hurston as one of eight children. At the age of three, her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., a place where she believed that African-Americans could live comfortably and independently of white society. Established in 1887, Eatonville was the country’s first incorporated black township and was formed after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Hurston was a child of privilege. Growing up in an eight-bedroom home on five acres of land, she witnessed black achievement all around her, whether it was black men formulating laws at town hall meetings or seeing black-owned businesses thriving. Her mother always encouraged her and her seven siblings to "jump at de sun."
But her privileged childhood abruptly ended with the death of her mother when she was 13, she moved from one family member to another because she could not get along with her father’s new wife.
While working as a waitress and a manicurist, Hurston enrolled in Morgan Academy, a high school division of Morgan State University, at age 26 years old although she listed herself as only 16. She graduated high school in 1918, and then at Howard University, where she received her associate degree. It was there, that she published her first story “John Redding Goes to Sea” in the school’s magazine. Hurston then decided to transfer to Barnard College in New York City, where she was offered a scholarship in anthropology working with the father of American anthropology Frank Boas. She later received her bachelor of arts in 1928.
From 1925 to 1928, Hurston wrote and published a variety of stories in different magazines, including Opportunity, during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of flourishing black literary and musical culture following World War I in the Harlem section of New York City. A variety of her stories were based in Eatonville with collaborations in her anthropology studies to give them a bit of a twist for her readers.
Hurston worked with Langston Hughes on the play “Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life” in 1930, but a year later because of disagreements of who deserved credit, the play never saw production. In 1934, Hurston published “Jonah's Gourd Vine” and “Mules and Men” in 1935. From 1936 to 1938, Hurston studied in Jamaica and Haiti, where she wrote two novels, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Tell My Horse" both in 1937. In 1939, Hurston wrote and published her second-to-last novel “Moses, Man of the Mountain.” She sporadically published her last two publications being her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road” in 1942 and in 1948 she published her very last novel “Seraph on the Suwanee.”
Many African-Americans disagreed with Hurston’s writing styles and they way she depicted African-American life based on her life in Eatonville. Also, her belief that African-American students didn’t have to attend schools with white children to learn separated her from black mainstream black America.
To this day, Hurston still has not been given the correct financial awards for all of her stories and novels. The largest amount she ever received for any of her books was $943.75.
Living in poverty and obscurity, Hurston suffered a severe stroke in 1959 and was admitted to Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Fla. It was there that Hurston died of hypertensive heart disease on Jan. 28, 1960. She was 69.
Unfortunately, when she died, her neighbors had to collect money for her funeral but didn’t have enough funds for a headstone, so Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave.
In the summer of 1973, a young Alice Walker, inspired by Hurston, went to Fort Pierce, Fla., and visited the cemetery where Hurston was buried. She came upon the patch that was determined to be Hurston’s, and bought a tombstone that stated: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”