Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960) was an American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist. Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In addition to new editions of her work being published after a revival of interest in her in 1975, her manuscript Every Tongue Got to Confess (2001), a collection of folktales gathered in the 1920s, was published posthumously after being discovered in the Smithsonian archives.
Hurston was the fifth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). Her father was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church.
When she was three, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida; in 1887 it was one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated in the United States. Hurston said she always felt that Eatonville was “home” to her as she grew up there, and sometimes she claimed it as her birthplace. Her father later was elected as mayor of the town in 1897 and in 1902 became preacher of its largest church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist.
Hurston later used Eatonville as a backdrop in her stories. It was a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of white society. In 1901, some northern schoolteachers visited Eatonville and gave Hurston a number of books that opened her mind to literature; she described it as a kind of “birth”. Hurston spent the remainder of her childhood in Eatonville, and describes the experience of growing up there in her 1928 essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”.
In 1927, Hurston married Herbert Sheen, a jazz musician and former classmate at Howard who later became a physician. Their marriage ended in 1931. In 1939, while Hurston was working for the WPA, she married Albert Price, who was 25 years younger than she; this marriage ended after only seven months.
She lived in a cottage in Eau Gallie, Florida, twice: once in 1929 and again in 1951. During the 1930s, Hurston was a resident of Westfield, New Jersey, where Langston Hughes was among her neighbors. In 1934 she established a school of dramatic arts “based on pure Negro expression” at Bethune-Cookman University (at the time, Bethune-Cookman College), a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida.
In 1956 Hurston received the Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations in recognition of her achievements. The English Department at Bethune-Cookman College remains dedicated to preserving her cultural legacy.
During her last decade, Hurston worked as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers. In the fall of 1952 she was contacted by Sam Nunn, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, to go to Florida to cover the murder trial of Ruby McCollum. The wealthy black married woman was charged with murdering a prominent white doctor and politician, also married, whom McCollum said had forced her to have sex and bear his child. Hurston recalled what she had seen of white male sexual dominance in the lumber camps in North Florida, and discussed it with Nunn. They both thought the case might be about such “paramour rights,” and wanted to “expose it to a national audience.”
Upon reaching Live Oak, Hurston was surprised not only by the gag order the judge in the trial placed on the defense, but by her inability to get residents in town to talk about the case; both blacks and whites were silent. She believed that might have been related to Dr. Adams’ alleged involvement as well in Sam McCollum’s gambling operation. Her articles were published by the newspaper during the trial. Ruby McCollum was convicted by an all-white, all-male jury, and sentenced to death. Hurston had a special assignment to write a serialized account, The Life Story of Ruby McCollum, over three months in 1953 in the newspaper. Her part was ended abruptly when she and Nunn disagreed about her pay, and she left.
Unable to pay independently to return for the appeal and second trial, she contacted journalist William Bradford Huie, with whom she had worked at The American Mercury, to try to interest him in the case. He covered the appeal and second trial, and also developed material from a background investigation. Hurston shared her material with him from the first trial, but he acknowledged her only briefly in his book, Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1956), which became a bestseller. Hurston celebrated that “McCollum’s testimony in her own defense marked the first time that a woman of African-American descent was allowed to testify as to the paternity of her child by a white man. Hurston firmly believed that Ruby McCollum’s testimony sounded the death toll of ‘paramour rights’ in the Segregationist South.”
Among other positions, Hurston later worked at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library at Patrick Air Force Base in 1957. She was fired for being “too well-educated” for her job.
She moved to Fort Pierce. Taking jobs where she could find them, she worked as a substitute teacher and as a maid.
During a period of financial and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973. Novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried, and decided to mark it as hers.
After Hurston died her papers were ordered to be burned. A law officer and friend, Patrick DuVal, passing by the house where she had lived, stopped and put out the fire, thus saving an invaluable collection of literary documents for posterity. The nucleus of this collection was given to the University of Florida libraries in 1961 by Mrs. Marjorie Silver, friend and neighbor of Hurston. Other materials were donated in 1970 and 1971 by Frances Grover, daughter of E. O. Grover, a Rollins College professor and long-time friend of Hurston’s. In 1979 Stetson Kennedy of Jacksonville, who knew Hurston through his work with the Federal Writers Project, added additional papers.