Novelist, folklorist, dramatist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, that she was born on January 7, 1891, in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in the United States. She may have taken creative license with this fact as more recent scholarship indicates she was born in Notasulga, Alabama and probably on January 15th. Hurston did move to Eatonville when she was a toddler and the dialects, customs, and folklore of the people of Eatonville and of rural Florida informed Hurston’s work throughout her career.
She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her.
Their Eyes Were Watching God: a novel, by Zora Neale Hurston. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., c1937. chapter 9.
“We goin’ on de muck.”
“Whut’s de muck, and where is it at?”
“Oh down in de Everglades round Clewiston and Belle Glade where dey raise all dat cane and string-beans and tomatuhs. Folks don’t do nothin’ down dere but make money and fun and foolishness. We must go dere.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God: a novel, by Zora Neale Hurston. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., c1937. chapter 13.
Hurston studied at Morgan Academy, the preparatory school of Morgan College, then at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She won a scholarship to Barnard College where she studied anthropology with Franz Boas and earned her bachelor of arts degree while participating in the flourishing Harlem Renaissance. She collected folklore and made recordings in Florida and other areas of the South in the late 1920s. During the Depression, she helped Alan Lomax, the son of pioneer folksong collector John Avery Lomax, document the folk music of Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. Later, she worked with the Federal Writer’s Project interviewing Floridians about their lives and culture and recording and collecting the diverse folk songs of her native state—a project she described as “an opportunity to observe the wombs of folk culture still heavy with life.”
People of Eatonville, Florida, photographed during the 1935 Lomax, Hurston, Barnicle expedition. Lomax Collection. Prints & Photographs Division
Her ethnographic work also took her beyond the United States. She traveled the Caribbean— to Haiti and Jamaica to study folklore and customs—and to Honduras to study black communities. Hurston assembled and published the information she gathered on Haitian and Jamaican voodoo in her book Tell My Horse (1938). Even though her pursuits led her many places, she always returned to Florida. She invoked the spirit and voice of her people by seamlessly weaving the songs, stories, and other information she collected in her studies into her fiction.
“Dat mule uh yourn, Matt. You better go see ’bout him. He’s bad off.”
“Where ’bouts? Did he wade in de lake and uh alligator ketch him?”
“Worser’n dat. De womenfolks got yo’ mule. When Ah come round de lake ’bout noontime mah wife and some ohters had ‘im flat on de ground usin’ his sides fuh uh wash board…
Yeah, Matt, dat mule so skinny till de women is usin’ his rib bones fuh uh rub-board, and hangin’ things out on his hock-bones tuh dry.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God: a novel, by Zora Neale Hurston. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., c1937. chapter 6.
Zora Neale Hurston’s wide-ranging interests as well as economic need led her to take an astounding variety of positions. She had short tenures as a manicurist, a librarian, a dramatic coach with the The New Deal Federal Theatre Project 1935-1939, a story consultant at Paramount Pictures, a maid, and a teacher.
In 1959, after suffering a stroke, Hurston was forced to enter a welfare home where she died in 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave and her work languished in relative obscurity until 1975, when Alice Walker published the article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. External magazine. In the article, Walker recounts her experiences of searching for, finding, and marking Hurston’s grave.
Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), but she also published folklore collections, the autobiography Dust Tracks On a Road (1942), and plays. In 1997, an historian at the Library of Congress and a former staffer/scholar discovered ten unpublished Hurston plays which Hurston had initially deposited in the Library for copyright protection. Among the plays are sketches, full-length comedies and dramas, and a libretto. The works incorporate the folk songs and dances that figure prominently in Hurston’s fiction. Though her play The Great Day had been produced on Broadway, prior to this discovery Hurston had been perceived as a novelist who had written plays; when, in fact, she clearly invested a great deal of her creativity in these works. Now scholars understand that the scope of her accomplishments is even greater than previously understood.
Photographs of people from Eatonville, Florida, taken during the 1935 Lomax, Hurston, Barnicle expedition appear in the Lomax Collection:
She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes!
Their Eyes Were Watching God: a novel, by Zora Neale Hurston. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., c1937. chapter 20.
- Explore the Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress for insights into Hurston’s life experience, travels, and research—especially her study of folklore in the African-American South and view images of page scripts.
- Explore Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937 to 1942, a multiformat ethnographic field collection documenting African-American, Arabic, Bahamian, British-American, Cuban, Greek, Italian, Minorcan, Seminole, and Slavic cultures throughout Florida. It includes nineteen recordings of Hurston singing Florida folk songs. Read the Special Presentation, A Florida Treasure Hunt, by Stetson Kennedy who describes Zora Neale Hurston and her work for the WPA.
- Listen to Hurston describe and perform songs found in the Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections:
- Search the Van Vechten Collection on zora to see another portrait of the folklorist. Then, browse the Occupational Index to look at authors, artists or any of a number of categories.
- Search on Zora Neale Hurston in American Women for more information on Hurston.
- Select a state or search on a topic or name in the collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 to read the same type of interviews Hurston conducted for the Federal Writer’s Project.
- Read Today in History features on other contributors to the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and James Baldwin, as well as pages on American novelists William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- Explore the Teachers page for primary sources on the Harlem Renaissance.
- See these ethnographic field collections: