A Southern native born in the tiny town of Notasulga, Alabama, Zora Neale Hurston eventually became one of the most renowned authors and anthropological raconteurs in contemporary African American history and literature.
While Hurston often claimed Eatonville, Florida, as her hometown, she and her family only moved to the all-black town when she was a young child. Hurston’s father, previously a carpenter and farmer, was eventually elected as Eatonville’s mayor, and later went on to become a preacher at the town’s largest Baptist congregation and church.
Hurston’s mother passed away when she was still a teenager, with her father remarrying shortly after his first wife’s passing. Losing her mother marked the start of an extremely difficult time period in Hurston’s life, the loss rendered more devastating by whispering rumors of her father’s adulterous affair with Hurston’s new stepmother - an affair that allegedly began long before Hurston’s mother’s death.
The tense relationship between Hurston and her family continued to worsen when her father, along with her new stepmother, sent Hurston away to Jacksonville, Florida for boarding school. When they stopped paying for Hurston’s tuition, however, the school immediately expelled her. Suddenly, at 16 years old, Hurston found herself joining a traveling theater company, working as a maid to the performance company’s lead singer, vowing to pay her way out of Florida.
As an adult, Hurston was hungering for more learning, still. At 26 years old, she started to claim her birthdate as 1901, rendering her 10 years younger in order for her to receive a free education at Morgan College, the high school division of the historically-black college, Morgan State University, located in Baltimore, MD. Hurston graduated a year later, enrolling in Howard University that upcoming fall, working towards her associate’s degree.
In 1925, Barnard College, the liberal arts women’s college affiliated with Columbia University, granted Hurston a scholarship. Hurston eventually made her way to New York City, where she became the college’s sole African American student, studying anthropology and conducting ethnographic research as an undergraduate and graduate student at Barnard.
Arriving to New York City at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance -- a cultural rebirth of the African American identity -- created a safe and nurturing environment for Hurston to delve more deeply into her writing.
In fact, Hurston has often referred to this period of her life as her “literary birth,” where the burgeoning author reflected on her life experiences in Eatonville and beyond to serve as inspiration for her essays and short stories, such as her 1928 work titled, “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.”
Hurston’s most famous work, however, remains her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, with several of the novel’s passages said to parallel the author’s own tumultuous personal love life. Independent and strong-minded, Hurston married twice throughout her lifetime, her travels, career and literary legacy lasting much longer than either relationship.
Hurston unfortunately suffered financial and medical hardships towards the end of her life, entering a county welfare home where she suffered a stroke and died of heart disease in 1960. Her grave remained unmarked for over a decade until 1973, when novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt marked an unknown grave as Hurston’s in the general area the late author is buried.