Celebrated author Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville and is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, though she wrote many other books and short stories within her lifetime.
Born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was three years old when her family moved to Eatonville, Florida. The town of Eatonville, or, “The Town that Freedom Built”, was first incorporated in 1887, and was one of the first all black towns in the United States. Though born in Alabama, Hurston always considered Eatonville to be her hometown, and the city was frequently used as a setting in her writings.
Her father, John Hurston, was the second pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church, currently located at South Calhoun Avenue in Eatonville, and also served as the mayor of Eatonville twice.
Zora would spend most of her childhood in Eatonville, but when her father remarried in 1905 following her mother’s death, Zora left home. For the next few years she lived with different family members and worked a series of odd jobs. By 1916, she was working as a maid to the lead singer of a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling group. She had not yet completed high school. Hurston decided to present her birth year as 1901 so that she could qualify for free public schooling; she would go on to study at Howard University from 1921 to 1924.
Further Education and Early Works
Continuing her education, she was awarded a scholarship to Barnard College in 1925 and decided to study anthropology. She finished her degree from Barnard in 1928 and went on to Columbia University to further study anthropology, where she conducted field studies in folklore among Black communities in the American South.
It was also at this point that Hurston would do the research and interviews of Cudjoe Lewis, then thought to be the last survivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade. These were published posthumously in 2018 under the title Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo.
During her higher education career, Zora Neale Hurston met many members of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes and Angelina Weld Grimké. In 1921, while attending Howard University, her first short story was published in Stylus, Howard University’s literary magazine.
Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston, ca. 1930 from State Archives of Florida
Though Hurston had published poetry, written plays and short stories for publications, her first novel did not come until 1934. Jonah’s Gourd Vine was written over a period of nine weeks in Sanford, Florida, after being asked by publisher Bertram Lippincott if she had written a novel.
Her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God was written over a period in time that Hurston spent in Haiti in 1936, and published in September 1937. Other works followed, including Tell My Horse, a collection of folklore collected in Haiti and Jamaica and first published in 1938, Moses, Man of the Mountain, published in 1939, Dust Tracks on a Road, an autobiography published in 1942 and Seraph on the Suwannee, published in 1948.
During the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston also worked for the Works Progress Administration as an anthropologist, documenting African American culture in the South. Folk songs that she collected during this period can be heard on Florida Memory.
Later Life and Death
Many of Hurston’s writings remained unpublished throughout her lifetime and she was never fairly compensated financially for her works. Though she continued writing, she often had to support herself through other jobs; including as a librarian and substitute teacher.
Due to failing health, Zora Neale Hurston was forced to apply for welfare in 1959, and passed away the following year on January 28th. She was buried in Fort Pierce, Florida; friends helping to pay for the funeral undertaking.
Zora Neale was laid to rest in the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce. Her grave site remained unmarked until 1973 when writer Alice Walker, inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, purchased a headstone for her grave.
The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (PEC) was formed in 1987 and became incorporated in 1988. The non-profit was given 501(c) status the following year. Their mission statement reads as follows:
The mission of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. is to promote Eatonville, Florida’s considerable heritage, historical, and cultural resources as a means for the community’s revitalization and economic development; and via programming which promotes pride of heritage, educational excellence and the cultural arts that the community will be preserved and protected for posterity.P.E.C. Mission Statement
The P.E.C.’s original goal was primarily an advocacy organization for the city of Eatonville, but soon after its formation, they realized that in order to preserve the community, it needed to be paired with arts and humanities programs. Thus, Zora! Fest was born. Honoring Zora Neale Hurston, Zora! Fest has taken place yearly in Eatonville, Florida since 1990. Zora! Fest not only honors Zora Neale Hurston but also showcases art by well-known and up and coming artists of African descent.
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A pdf showing the Zora! Festival Program from 2000, the eleventh year that the festival took place.