Rediscovering an Icon

Zora Neale Hurston collecting folksongs and folktales in Eatonville - 1935

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.”

Zora Neale Hurston - quote

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.

“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.

Zora Neale Hurston 2

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.

Photo: Zora Neale Hurston – Taken between 1935 and 1943. Source: U.S. Library of Congress

Photo: Zora Neale Hurston 2 – Taken 1937. Source: U.S. Library of Congress

Link: Florida History – Zora Neale Hurston

Link: “Zora Neale Hurston.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.

Link: Zora Neale Hurston – excerpt of audio book “Mules and Men”

Link: Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker’s discovery of Hurston’s final resting place – St. Lucie County –

  1. Judy, I feel so bad, Zora is so little known… I will ask my Mom who taught MLK, Jr. and Malcolm X’s book to her World Lit and English classes if she heard of her.It is an interesting story and a ‘lost page’ out of history, Judy. There was an interest in Isaak Dinesen’s books and also, “Things Fall Apart,” book in her classes. (Cinua Achebe)
    I am so proud and happy about Alice Walker’s finding her poor resting place and giving Zora the honor she deserved.

    1. Robin … I first read Zora’s folk tale, “How the Snake Got Poison,” to my 7th grade classes 11 years ago. Before that, I hadn’t read any of her stories. She is very talented and a fascinating character. The link to St. Lucie County’s site has the story of Alice Walker’s discovery. Thank heavens for her diligence. 😉

  2. I bet her stories, songs and outlandish tales are amazing Judy! It is something for a woman to have done all this, and all the more amazing, a black woman back in those days. ❤
    Diana xo

  3. I had no idea Zora Neale Hurston had such an ignominious end. Or that Alice Walker did what she could to rectify the situation. I have never read any of ZNH which I guess I should rectify one of these days. This is a fascinating post, Judy, thank you.

    1. Barbara … I was disappointed when we got our new Literature books this year. Our old ones, which had at least one of Zora’s folk tales, were at least 12 years old. Zora Neale Hurston, who is a Florida native who wrote about folk tales in Florida, is not even included. My favorite folk tale of hers, as I mentioned above, is “How the Snake Got Poison.” It makes me chuckle. 😉

      1. Something I may be able to find if I look around, I bet. Also, I notice here in Virginia that many old country people will say ‘Oh, he’s just telling lies” about somebody who is spinning a yarn. Sweet.

  4. This post was certainly a good review of what my students heard about Zora Neale Hurston, a writer whose work Their Eyes Were Watching God I taught in Intro. to Lit classes. Thanks to Alice Walker for making those “bones” come alive. And to you for reviving warm memories of that wonderful writer today.

    1. Alice Walker’s quest made me wonder how many other greats’ works have been lost because of changing literary interests. Marian, Zora really did have a great way of telling ‘pourquoi’ (why) stories – folk tales that explain phenomena in nature. I’ll bet your students enjoyed her stories.

      At one time, Zora lived in Eau Gallie which is about 10 to 15 miles from where I live now. I have to check out that site. Next year, I want to go to the festival in Eatonville that honors her. 😉

  5. Judy such a fascinating yet sad story of a woman way ahead of her time. I was sad to read she died penniless and happy that she is now being recognised. Zora’s memory will live on if we write about it like you have. Thanks for the history lesson and I imagine it would be so much more when you live in the area that she once lived in.

    1. Kath … Zora’s life is celebrated every year about this time in Eatonville, Florida. I hope to visit there next year. It’s outside Orlando which is about 50 miles from where I live. The place she lived in in Eau Gallie is within 15 miles of our house – so that will be much easier. I was fortunate to meet the researcher, Terry Hooker. I work with Terry’s sister. ;-).

  6. Excellent post, Judy. My favorite Zora Nele Hurston book to teach in sophomore honors was THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. She had such style and natural grace: “The season closed and people went away like they had come–in droves.” In an interview she used that sentence from the novel and added that when she was assigned to stay and take care of the children, she, too, longed to be part of the droves.

    1. Marilyn … I just purchased “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and it is a fascinating read. I loved the quote you wrote.

      Zora did love to roam. Given how her brother treated her like an unpaid domestic servant when she was a teen, it’s understandable that she would want to escape to another life. 😉

  7. Thank you for sharing Zora’s story, Judy. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if her brother hadn’t pulled her from school. What an amazing and determined woman.

  8. It’s like having an online tutor Judy …I have never heard of this lady but I would love to learn more . I have also promised myself to read ‘The Colour Purple but still haven’t …on the to do list .
    I come from a little market town near Birmingham U.K. and our claim to fame is Francis Brett Young . He trained as a doctor but followed is love of Literature and became an author . I am book crazy, yet I am ashamed to admit, never having read one of this guy’s books. My to do list gets longer as we speak.

    1. That’s funny, Cherry. Just remember that this online tutor has the attention span of a squirrel. 😆 I saw the movie, “The Color Purple,” and might have read the book. But it was a long time ago.

      I can relate to your book addiction. I have a stack of books calling me. Thanks for sharing about Francis Brett Young. Did he use his training as a doctor for the type of books he wrote about? Michael Crichton did and that made for a fascinating read.

  9. wow, judy. i had no idea about her story. fascinating. so ahead of her time and i ‘m happy her legacy has not been forgotten.

  10. What a great job Zora Neale Hurston had, indeed, Judy. And what a noble and just service you have done spreading word of her important discoveries in your neck of Florida. I would never have known otherwise. Thank you.

    1. I would have loved that job, Mark. I love tall tales, or “big old lies.” They’re such fun. Zora is best known, however, for her novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” That her works fell off the radar for about 20 years certainly makes me wonder who else we need to rediscover. 😉

  11. I was just thinking Zora must have had a lot of conversations with a lot people in order to collect those old stories. It does sound like a dream job to me. Conversation and meeting interesting characters sounds very appealing! 🙂 I’m wondering though, did she get the stories from more than one source, because sometimes people have great stories they believe are handed down and they find they are not as old as they think they are, or the version has changed over many years. Fairy tales for example have altered a lot from their original beginnings and probably are still changing to this day. Her books must be an interesting read. Are they available again now?

    There are quite a lot of famous people especially authors have lived near to where I live. Do you know the story of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell? I’m not sure if that novel is known in America, but it’s certainly a very famous and a well loved story in Britain. The story is told by the horse himself (Black Beauty) which must have been a very unusual way to write a book in 1800’s, and I think she got quite a backlash from men who thought it was sentimental trash. She wrote that book while being in a very bad state of health, and I wonder if her sympathy with some horses ill treatment by their owners had something to do with the way she felt herself. It is said that her novel changed the way owners thought about and treated their horses. But that might be wishful thinking for those who love her book. It’s a nice thought though, that maybe a book you write could change people for the better. 🙂

    1. Suzy … Zora’s books are widely read in schools and colleges. They can be found online in audio versions and print versions. Folk tales and other oral story telling traditions, no doubt, do change over time.

      I believe that I read Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” to my girls when they were young. It was a popular book. The movie, “Black Beauty,” played two years after Elizabeth Taylor’s starring role in “National Velvet” (1944)

      I think most writers would be delighted to know that their writing resulted in positive changes in the world. I know I would feel that way. 😉

    1. It is a lesson for all of us, I think, Shakti. But it’s sad that Zora was not celebrated for her writing … until nearly two decades after she died. That’s true of many famous artists I’ve read about. We should show our appreciation for their talents while they walk among us.

  12. I’d never heard of her. Every so often one comes across a story like this, and it gives me a tremendous boost, a feeling of true elation. And I wonder for a moment how many unsung heroes and geniuses have quietly traversed the earth and passed on, unknown or forgotten. Sad, yes, but they also gladden my heart in a way the famous cannot. One of your most inspiring posts, Judy– beautiful! Many thanks for sharing.

    1. I’ve a confession to make, Mark. I never heard of Zora until I started teaching 7th grade about 11 years ago. The literature book had one of her folk tales in it and I loved it. Since then, I’ve read a bit more of her writing.

      It’s sad to consider that we’ve lost many other talents in the arts because tastes change. Thank you for you comments. They really brighten my day. 😉

  13. I had never heard of Zora either! Thank you for this fascinating introduction Judy. I am curious to know more about her. Sad that her life ended the way it did.

    1. Madhu … it is sad that someone so talented died alone and penniless. Thank heavens that Alice Walker, the author of “The Color Purple,” searched for Zora’s unmarked grave and found a way to honor her. I hope you get to read some of her stories. I know some are online. 😉

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