An oral history interview with Reverend Gene Zimmerman and his wife, Emily Ann Zimmerman, as they share details of the friendship between Zora Neale Hurston and Emily Ann’s mother, Mrs. Clifford Owen.
Eugene Zimmerman, I was born near Tarpon Springs, Florida, grew up in that area. Went to the University of Florida. Met this lovely lady here and began to pursue her because I thought she was funny. She still is. And I did a degree in literature, arts, and so on. I started there in forestry and decided to go to the ministry. Finished the Bachelor of Arts went to Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Back to Florida and have served Methodist Churches all over Florida until retirement.
I’m Emily Ann Zimmerman and I was born near Plant City in just a cross road called Nights or we called it Night Station because there was a depot there at that time. We moved to Lake Wales where my father managed an orange packing house and grove and then in 1936 we moved to East Palatka, Florida. And I lived there until I went away to school and married Gene.
LISTEN Part I (14:26)
Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman on their wedding day.
And as he said, we met at the University of Florida. I was getting a degree in recreation and got my AA before he went to seminary and then I worked while he was in seminary and then we came back to Florida. His first appointment was Chiefland and I commuted to Gainesville for a semester. Became pregnant with our first child Catherine Marie Zimmerman and so within that very time of birth we moved to Gainesville.
So when Catherine was about 2 1/2 I resumed my studies and by that time my school had changed to Health & Human Performances. I graduated in 1959 with a degree in Recreation from the Health & Human Departments area at the school of the University of Florida.
Were there many women pursuing degrees at that time?
Yes, I was the first one to live in the new dormitory. I started in ’49 and there were women there already. They came in ’47, but it was still, the ratio of men to women was probably 12 to 1 or something like that….
Gene: May I tell the story where Zora comes in and you correct me as I go along? We finished seminary. I did in 1954. And in the Methodist Church they assign you where they want you to go…. But it was 1950 when we were married. Her father was a railroad station agent for the Florida East Coast and he moved like Methodist preachers from one place to another. Well, later on the Florida East Coast assigned him to Eau Galle now none existent town. Melbourne swallowed it up. And we were in seminary as I recall and we came home for a visit. And about the time we were there this black woman came walking down the street to Emily Ann’s mother, “Hey, Owen,” she called her. “Hey, Owen.” And mom said something like, “Coffee’s on the stove. Go right on in.” That’s when we first saw her. And then we began to ask mom, you know, “Who’s your friend? What’s all this about?”
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora spent time in the Caribbean writing in Haiti, about Haiti, about Caribbean people. And she shipped her writing in a trunk back to the states and when she got back here, she couldn’t afford, she didn’t have enough money to retrieve her trunk. So at some point, she went to the station agent in Eau Galle, Emily Ann’s father, explained her problem and said, “Is there any way you could track this down?” And apparently her father told her mother about it. “Well, injustice has to be stopped right now,” Mrs. Owens. So she got into helping find the trunk and that brought the two of them together. She was determined to find the trunk. And they never did.
Emily Ann: It had been sold. It had been s long since it came in and after so many years then they sell it like they do things that’s been found on the airline…. But, anyway, it had been sold. So a whole lot of writings and observations about the Caribbean were lost there….
Gene: Anyway, she lived in this little house near the railroad track. That’s where she lived back in the twenties when she wrote “Mules and Men”. And so she had come back there from wherever she had been. So in the process of looking for this trunk, the two of them became very fast friends. And so Zora came and went and always passed the house going to the post office. When we talked to mom about her, Mom said she knew that she didn’t have much. Because there were times Zora would ask her if she would buy some paper, some writing paper for her. And that she’d pay her back, you know. She said, “I know she’s poor.”
Emily: Well, she stopped most days mom said for coffee. And sometimes she would have toast and sometimes she wouldn’t. But I think she stopped most days for coffee with Mama.
Gene: So we knew her then briefly as mom’s friend.
Emily: But we didn’t know what she’d written. We had no idea. We knew she had written a book because she gave Mama a copy of her book “Seraph on the Suwanee”. But we didn’t know that she had written – we might have known that she had written for some magazines, but not really. We didn’t know who she was. We had no idea who she was, really.
Gene: She gave an autographed one to Mom….
Mrs. Clifford Owen Reading Seraph on the Suwanee from Zora Neale Hurston.
Emily Ann: Yes, my mother’s first name was Clifford. She was named for an Aunt Clifford. But nobody called her Clifford much….
Inscription for Seraph on the Suwanee from Zora Neale Hurston:
To Mrs. Clifford Owen, a throne angel in a robe of shining rainbows – Zora Neale Huston.
And this is the book I’ve heard people say is not her best book. It’s the only one about a white family and it is “Seraph on the Suwanee”.
LISTEN Part II (10:55)
What was your mom like?
Let me read something about her. I’ll interject this – Zora, in 1954 decided that mama deserved to be Mother of the Year. And evidently back then that’s what people would do. They would think up somebody they wanted to be Mother of the Year. And she said Mama deserved the Mother of the Year. So she wrote all of us, all seven, except my youngest sister who was living there in Eau Galle. She didn’t write her, I think she just said, “Carolyn, would you write a letter about your mother and tell me something about her attributes that you think would be worthy of being Mother of the Year? But she wrote all of us these wonderful letters….
Letters from Zora Neale Hurston to Mrs. Owen’s Children.
Now I’m going to read the one that I wrote her. This was in 1954:
“Mama loves to can foods and has always had a pantry running over with fruits, vegetables, pickles, etc. This not only meant good vittles but also economy. This brings to mind another thought. When Gene and I were married I had six more months of college before I finished my two years and he had six months of college plus three years seminary. So needless to say we realized that we would really have to budget our money. A situation like this certainly made me grateful for my experience in household affairs. We met several couples while we were in school that had very little experience in budgeting their income and operating a house and they were really handicapped.
Maybe experience is mama’s secret for a smoothly run house. This is practically her second family to raise as her mother died when she was 12 leaving four other children all younger than mama. Therefore much of the responsibility fell to her.
One thing mama has made me aware of is my civic responsibility. She’s always taken such an active part in public affairs and was always ready to take her share of the responsibilities that it required. Her quote ‘hot letters’ have been a family joke for some time. Because if any situation a stand was made with which she disagreed, she felt it her personal obligation to write or wire them her views, disagreement or agreement. If more of us took such interest in say our national affairs, we would certainly have a government by the people. With an awareness of civic responsibility and other social interests, I was made to realize the need to express one’s self and the need to think for yourself. I’m certainly no intellectual giant, but I do feel that mama encouraged us to think and read and to formulate a few sound principals on which to base our lives.
She has realized the importance of education and has encouraged and helped us all through high school and five of us through two or more years of college. One more thing I will add, somewhere along the way, I developed a love for people which as a minister’s wife is a necessity. I’m sure this began at home as this was a meeting place for all our friends. Mama has always encouraged us to make friends and has always done a lot to make them feel at home when they were visiting us.
It didn’t seem like Sunday unless one or two people came home from church with us for dinner. Thank you again Zora for all you’re doing promoting Mama for Mother of the Year. As you probably noticed I’m not the world’s best typist, but maybe you can read it.
-Emily Ann Zimmerman
Mrs. Clifford Owen
Well, it says a little bit about the person she was. One thing, we lived in East Palatka and that was out of the city limits and we were not allowed to use the library without paying because we were in the city limits. But she made that one of her responsibilities was to get the opportunity for people living in the county to be able to use the library for free. And she did.
And my brother who is the third, this was when we lived in Night Station, there was no cafeteria, but she, as part of PTA helped to get cafeterias within the school. But way back when, this was in the twenties, the late twenties, because I was born in 1930 and this brother was seven years older then I at least. And mama would bring a hot lunch to the family and other people that wanted it. And so she started cooking lunch for other children and she had to charge for the food, but it was a 15 cent lunch. So things going on in the community were a part of her. That was what I grew up with. And neighbors who needed food always were on her list. Send a plate down the street. Send a tray down. So that was part of growing up with mama.
How did Zora Neale know about your mother’s character?
She began to know mama at that time. My mother was anti-alcohol. She was a teetotaler and wanted everybody to be. She was also anti-gambling. And there was bingo being played in town. So mama decided there should not be bingo, that was gambling. So she started a campaign to get rid of the bingo. So I’m sure Zora knew about that. Because it was in the papers and, in fact, people would call mama in the middle of the night like at two o’clock in the morning and she would pick up the phone and they would say, “Bingo!” And hang up the phone. So that was another of the things that Zora knew that mama was working on and she knew she was active in PTA.
And mama wanted Zora to bring some children from the black schools to the PTA meeting. And people did not want to do that. But she did it anyway. Mama, I don’t know, if she was president of the PTA, but in one of these articles it talks about that… This was in The River Valley paper wherever that was. And so, all of those things Zora observed and said, you know this woman’s really somebody special. And then she had seven kids and all of us were doing- nobody was in jail or anything. So she thought that she was an admirable mother. It was during the Depression that we, most all of us were born.
Gene: I think they both recognized that each had an indomitable spirit. I mean you could not back either one of them down or get them to stop doing what they were doing. Her mother was the same way. Zora was a survivor all the way through. I just happened to think about this. Zora taught at Bethune Cookman for a year. But she and Mary McLeod Bethune didn’t get along together. I learned this over at Bethune. Because Zora, number one lived on a houseboat, number two drank and smoked. And Mary McLeod didn’t want to have much to do with that. I’ve been a trustee over there for many, many years. That’s what I think Bronson, Dr. Bronson told me that one time. She was too racy, too bold, too brash….
LISTEN Part III (17:08)
You wrote a story about the two ladies would you read that for us, please?
Right. “A Tale of Two Women”. I’ll be glad to. Shall I introduce myself? Gene Zimmerman. I wrote a story about my mother in law, Mrs. Clifford Owen, and her friend, Zora Neale Hurston, having met Ms. Hurston with her one time.
Archives courtesy of Emily Ann Zimmerman.
Interviewer: Jane E. Tracy
Date: June 29, 2016
Place: Orlando Lutheran Towers
The first time I saw Zora Neale Hurston, she was coming down the sidewalk in Eau Gallie, Florida, jaunty and breezy, calling out to my mother-in-law with a loud voice, "Good Mornin, Owen", she said. "Mornin, Zora. The coffee is on the stove, go on in and help yourself." She introduced us and Zora went in the house....
Read "A Tale of Two Women" a story of friendship between Zora Neale Hurston and Mrs. Owen, written by Reverend Eugene Zimmerman.
Reverend Zimmerman known for his lifetime of service in the First United Methodist Church in Florida, wrote this story of strength and character about his mother-in-law Mrs. Owen and her friend writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Listen as Reverend Zimmerman reads the story in this excerpt from an oral history interview with the Reverend and Mrs. Zimmerman at Orlando Lutheran Towers, June 29, 2016.
Dear Prof. Owen:
I sincerely believe that your mother rates the distinction of MOTHER OF THE YEAR. I am certain that numerous others in this State will agree with me. I am therefore taking the initiative in doing something about it....
Read the letters from Zora Neale Hurston written to the children of Mrs. H. A. Owen encouraging them to nominate their mother as Mother of the Year in Eau Gallie, Florida in 1954. VIEW.
Listen as Emily Ann Zimmerman reads the "Mother of the Year Letter" she wrote for her mother in response to Zora Neale Hurston's request in this excerpt from an oral history interview with Mrs. Zimmerman at Orlando Lutheran Towers, June 29, 2016.
Writer Zora Neale Hurston met Mrs. H. A. Owen when she came to retrieve a trunk of her writings from the Caribbean. The two ladies became friends while living in the small town of Eau Gallie, which is now part of Melbourne.
Read "A Tale of Two Women" a story of friendship between Zora Neale Hurston and Mrs. Owen, written by Reverend Eugene Zimmerman.
Reverend Zimmerman, known for his lifetime of service in the First United Methodist Church in Florida, wrote this story of strength and character about his mother-in-law Mrs. Owen and her friend writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Letters courtesy of Emily Ann Zimmerman.