By Judy Berman
Zora Neale Hurston had the dream job. She got to return to her hometown in Eatonville, Florida, and gather stories – or “big old lies” – that she heard growing up.
Eatonville was the first all-black incorporated city in the United States.
The folklore she collected from working-class African-Americans there included songs and tall tales dating back to the times of slavery. Folk tales usually have moral lessons and reflect the values and customs of the culture they come from.
As an anthropologist and writer, she also collected oral histories in the Caribbean.
At one time, Hurston was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American cultural movement in the 1920s and 1930s that brought African-American literature, music, art and politics to the American public. It was a world apart from the one she left as a teen.
After her mother died, she moved in with one of her brothers. Her brother took her out of school to help his wife care for their children. She was treated as an unpaid domestic helper. Hurston was not happy about this. She knew she was born to roam.
“I wanted to get through high school. I had a way of life inside me, and I wanted it with a want that was twisting me,” Hurston wrote in the autobiographical “Dust Tracks in the Road.”
She was poor most of her life. The last few years of her life, she worked as a maid until her health prevented her from continuing. When she died in 1960, she was penniless and buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.
From the 1950s to the late 1970s, her work was virtually forgotten. Her books were out of print.
Another well-known author, Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”) searched for Hurston’s grave. She found the final resting place of who Walker called the “Genius of the South” in the 1970s, and bought a headstone for it. http://www.stlucieco.gov/zora/zora_marker_4.htm
“We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. If they do, it is our duty as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of children. If necessary, bone by bone,” Alice Walker, author, 1976.
Hurston’s works were rediscovered, and are now being read in many high schools and colleges. Since 1990, the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community “has celebrated their town’s most famous citizen with the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities,” according to the Florida Historical Society.
The festival, which ends a weeklong celebration on Feb. 1, includes an exhibit from the Florida Historical Society in Cocoa.
While Hurston will be forever associated with that historic town, another community believes that Hurston was referring to her former home in Eau Gallie when she wrote on July 9, 1951, to Florida historian Jean Parker Waterbury.
“Somehow, this one spot on earth feels like home to me. I have always intended to come back here. That is why I am doing so much to make a go of it,” Hurston wrote.
Her book, “Mules and Men,” which was published in 1935, was written in 1929, when she lived in Eau Gallie, according to archival researcher Terry Hooker with the Florida Historical Society in Cocoa.
Hurston lived in Eau Gallie twice – in 1929, and between 1951 and 1956. (Eau Gallie now is part of Melbourne.)
“When Hurston was unable to purchase her much-loved Eau Gallie cottage, she moved to an efficiency apartment in Cocoa, while working as a librarian,” according to the Florida Historical Society.
She also lived on Merritt Island, leaving Brevard County in 1957 for Fort Pierce, where she died three years later.
Hooker says she admires Hurston’s determination and spirit.
“She just kept going despite the adversity of being a woman and African-American at that time. She never gave up.”
“We wouldn’t have the stories at Eatonville if she hadn’t done it. She started doing it. Then the WPA (Works Progress Administration under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) paid her to do it, and she just kept writing,” Hooker said.
Has anyone famous lived in or near your community? Please share below. (Thank you to Terry Hooker, an archival researcher, with the Florida Historical Society in Cocoa for providing research material and photos for this post.)
Photo: Zora Neale Hurston collecting folk songs and folk tales in Eatonville, Florida, in 1935. Photo: Library of Congress – in the Florida Historical Society’s curriculum guide.https://myfloridahistory.org/book/export/html/1655
Photo: Zora Neale Hurston – Taken between 1935 and 1943. Source: U.S. Library of Congress http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOC.jpg
Photo: Zora Neale Hurston 2 – Taken 1937. Source: U.S. Library of Congress http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f1/Zora_Neale_Hurston_NYWTS.jpg/315px-Zora_Neale_Hurston_NYWTS.jpg
Link: Florida History – Zora Neale Hurston https://myfloridahistory.org/book/export/html/1655
Link: “Zora Neale Hurston.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://www.biography.com/people/zora-neale-hurston-9347659
Link: Zora Neale Hurston – excerpt of audio book “Mules and Men” http://zoranealehurston.com/books/mules-and-men
Link: Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker’s discovery of Hurston’s final resting place – St. Lucie County – http://www.stlucieco.gov/zora/zora_marker_4.htm