From October 1947 to February 1948, Zora lived in Honduras. She went there to find ancient Mayan ruins or anything left behind a previously undiscovered culture. While she was in Honduras, she wrote “Seraph on the Suwannee,” which was set in Florida. This was the only book she wrote about white people.
Zora wanted to write an authentic book about Florida “crackers.” The story centers around a white woman and her struggling marriage and family life. It was not well received by white or Black audiences, and many black critics thought that she betrayed herself by writing about white people.
After Honduras, she moved back to New York and worked as a freelancer for magazines and various newspapers.
One fall day in 1952, she received a phone call from Sam Nunn, the editor of the Pittsburg Courier, a newspaper she had written for in the past, and he asked her to cover a murder case in Florida.
She was tasked with covering the case of a Black woman charged with the murder of Dr. C. Leroy Adams. He was known as being an upstanding citizen, a doctor, and a politician. But according to Mrs. McCollum, Dr. Adams raped her and forced her to give him a child.
Having already studied and reported on white men keeping Black women as slaves in North Florida, Zora fully believed Ms. McCollum. She wanted to expose the world to the difficult conditions of life for Black women in the south.
When Hurston arrived in Live Oak, Florida, she attended the trial and started to write her articles. She went around the small town hoping to interview the townsmen, both Black and white, but nobody would talk to her about the case.
From the segregated upstairs balcony of the courthouse, Hurston shed national and international light onto the case. Sadly, Hurston had to watch as the all-white, all-male jury convict and sentence Mrs. McCollum to death. From this trial, she wrote a serialized account called “The Life Story of Ruby McCollum.”
After the trial, she moved from one job to another, writing when and where she could. She briefly took work in the Library at the Patrick Air Force Base but was fired for being “too well-educated.”
She later moved to Fort Pierce, Florida, where she took whatever jobs she could find. Now in her sixties, Zora struggled to make ends meet. She drifted into obscurity and kept out of the public eye until she passed away on January 28th, 1960.
Upon her death, she ordered that her works be burned, many of which had not yet been published. A friend of Hurston’s passed by the house and saw the fire. He put out the fire and saved the remaining works from being destroyed. They were donated to the University of Florida, where some of them still sit today.
Zora wrote in her subjects’ tone and dialect, which were often southern Black people. This garnered some criticism by fellow Black writers at the time because they felt like she was insulting and setting back the progress of other writers. Now she is praised for preserving a dialect from the past that was dutifully and respectfully collected.
Today, some of her works are mandatory reading in high schools all across the country. The most popular is “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In the novel, a beautiful Black woman returns to her family home in Eatonville after running away from a loveless marriage to a white man.
The book was taught in schools for many years but has recently been removed by some schools due to adult themes, language, and dialect. Often studied for its representations of gender roles, it also explores the main character’s desire for love, freedom, and a true voice.
The book’s initial release came out to mixed reviews. The main criticism came from the same Harlem Renaissance Movement that she played a role in furthering. Still, not all experts agreed with the negative criticism. Today Time magazine has lists “Their Eyes Were Watching God” among its top 100 books from the 1900s.
Zora Neale Hurston is one of the most respected and revered writers of her generation. She chose to dedicate her life to preserving different cultures and societies, and her works and studies are now on display in museums.
Her hometown of Eatonville celebrates her every year with a festival called the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of Arts and Humanities. The town also built the Zora Neale Hurston Museum of Fine Arts and named a library named after her. She’s been called too smart for her own good and ahead of her time, but above all, she is called a great American author.