Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1959)
On January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was born in the tiny town of Notasulga, Alabama. She was the fifth of eight children in the Hurston household. Her father John was a carpenter, a sharecropper, and a Baptist preacher; her mother Lucy, a former schoolteacher. Within a year of Zora's birth, the family moved to Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was the first incorporated black municipality in the United States.
In 1904, thirteen-year-old Zora was devastated by the death of her mother. Later that same year, her father removed her from school and sent her to care for her brother's children. A rambunctious and restless teenager, Zora was eager to leave the responsibility of her brother's household. She became a member of a traveling theater at the age of sixteen, and subsequently began domestic work in a white household. The woman for whom Zora worked bought her her first book and arranged for her to attend high school at Morgan Academy (now known as Morgan State University) in Baltimore. She graduated in June 1918.
The following summer, Zora worked as a waitress and manicurist before enrolling in Howard Prep School. She later attended Howard University. Although she spent nearly four years at Howard, she graduated with only a two-year Associates degree. Perhaps this is explained by the fact that Zora spent most of her time at Howard writing. Beginning with a college publication, and then branching out into writing contests in newspapers and magazines, the early 1920s marked the beginning of Zora Neale Hurston's career as an author.
In 1925, as the Harlem Renaissance was building steam, Hurston headed to New York City. She enrolled in Barnard College to study under Franz Boas, an important founder of the discipline of anthropology. While there, Hurston married her boyfriend from Howard, Herbert Sheen, but the marriage was short-lived. After graduation, Zora returned to her hometown of Eatonville to collect stories as material for her blossoming writing career. In the late 1920s, Hurston published several works and consequently gained financial sponsorship from wealthy New York patrons.
The 1930s and early 1940s marked the peak of Hurston's literary career. She completed graduate work at Columbia, published four novels and an autobiography, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She traveled to the Caribbean where she became intrigued by the practice of voodoo and she began to incorporate supernatural elements into her novels and stories. Although her work received increasing acclaim from the white literati of New York, Zora often felt under attack by members of the Black Arts Movement. She termed these detractors as members of the "niggerati" for being close-minded in their criticism of her racial politics.
By the mid-1940s Hurston's writing career was faltering, and she was arrested and charged with molesting a ten-year-old boy. Although she was acquitted, the scars to her image remained permanent. Hurston sunk into depression as publishers rejected one after another of her works.
Around 1950, Hurston returned to Florida where she worked cleaning houses. After a slew of unsuccessful career changes (including newspaper journalist, librarian, and substitute teacher), Hurston became a penniless recluse. She suffered a fatal stroke in 1959 and was buried at unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.