Zora Neale Hurston lived her life to the fullest and became a significant figure in Florida history. Not only was she an extremely accomplished and respected writer, but she spent almost twenty years as an anthropologist, collecting and preserving the cultures she studied. Today her books are mandatory reading in high schools and colleges around the world and a treasured resource of Black history.
In 1927 Cudjoe Lewis was interviewed by a famous author. Cudjoe was one of the last living people aboard the Clotilda. The Clotilda was an illegal slave ship that made its voyage in 1860 and made her the last known slave to be transported in the transatlantic slave trade.
While this wasn’t the first book or article written about her, it was the first by a famous Black female author. This young author would go on to write dozens of award-winning books, articles, and plays. She is one of the most celebrated Black authors of all time. Her name was Zora Neale Hurston.
Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 15th, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. Both of her parents had been slaves in Alabama, and when she was just a little girl, they decided to move to Eatonville, Florida, where they became quite successful.
Eatonville was one of the first all-black towns in the United States. Hurston’s father even became one of the town’s first mayor. She would later use Eatonville as the setting in a lot of her writings.
Her mother died in 1905, and her father quickly remarried under somewhat scandalous circumstances. Her father and new stepmother sent her to a boarding school in Jacksonville. Unfortunately for Hurston, her father stopped paying tuition, and she was dismissed from the school.
She worked as a maid for the lead singer of a sizeable theatrical company in 1916 and was accepted into Morgan college’s high school program, where she completed her high school studies. To get in, the 26-year-old Zora lied on her application, claiming she was born in 1901. She graduated in 1918.
After completing her high school studies, Zora attended Howard University, a historically black college where she earned her associate’s Degree. During her time there, she helped found the school’s newspaper, The Hilltop, where some believe her writing career started.
She also was one of the first initiates into the black girl’s sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. While she was at Howard, she discovered her love for history, anthropology, and writing.
She wrote her first short story entitled “John Redding Goes to Sea.” This short story allowed her to become a member of the Howard university literary club and Zora graduated in 1924.
After Howard, she was given a scholarship to Barnard university, the female college of Columbia University. She was the sole black woman admitted. It’s here where the aspiring writer spent three years getting her degree in anthropology and graduated in 1925 at 37 years old.
She continued writing throughout her time at Barnard. After graduating, she entered into a two-year graduate program with the anthropology division of Columbia University as one of the first Black women to be apart of the program.
Simultaneously, she wrote short stories and plays, entering into writing contests and first being published by the National Urban League for her work entitled “Opportunity: A Journey of Negro Life.”
It’s said that Hurston’s apartment was a lively spot where many young writers would gather and share ideas. Eventually, Hughes introduced Zora to Charlotte Mason, a philanthropist and avid supporter of Literature.
Mason took a liking to Zora and her writings. She wanted Zora to travel back down south and collect history, folk tales, music, and the culture of Black people living in the Jim Crow south. In return for collecting this information, she earned $200 a month and the freedom to explore her writing.
The grants Zora was awarded to explore the history and livelihood of Black people in the south ran out due to the great depression. She and Hughes relied heavily on Mason who continued to support them financially during these challenging times.
From 1928 to 1932, Zora traveled to the Caribbean and deep into America’s southern parts for research. It was during this time that she came across lumber camps in Northern Florida.
She discovered that even though slavery was over, some parts of the south still went by the practice of paramount rights, in which a white man the right to own Black women and use them for children. This practice was still in use in the lumber camps.
Appalled by her findings, she wrote her first critically-acclaimed piece, "Mules and Men," in 1935. It shed light on Jim Crow practices happening in the shadows.
In 1935, Zora, along with folk singer Alan Lomax and activist and historian Mary Barnicle, traveled through Georgia and Florida collecting Black folk music.
Zora was tasked with finding the origins of the music and gathering as much historical data as possible on the birthplace of folk music. This took her to Jamaica and Haiti, where she spent an entire year collecting information for her anthropological book called "Tell My Horse."