By Karassa Stinchcomb
Anthropologist, folklorist, novelist and Harlem Renaissance writer—these are some of the occupations of Zora Neale Hurston—but it’s her passion to give a voice to the voiceless that makes her legacy all the more interesting.
“If you want that good feeling that comes from doing things for other folks, then you have to pay for it in abuse and misunderstanding,” Hurston wrote in “Moses, man of the Mountain.”
Some of Hurston’s most influential and important work came from her work in Jacksonville as the result of her involvement with The Federal Writers Project from 1935-1937.
Hurston was in charge of The Federal Writers Project “Negro Unit,” which was located at the Clara White Mission on West Ashley Street. The unit was part of the Works Progress Administration.
The administration was established in 1935 during the Great Depression to ensure people had jobs. The Writers Project was part of its mission and designed to capture the voices and stories of people who were nearing the end of their lives.
Under the administration, Hurston, who completed her bachelor’s degree in anthropology at New York’s Barnard College in 1928, was able to use her anthropological training to collect the folklore of blacks and rural whites.
“Hurston would frequent the sawmills and collect work songs to be published in her books,” said Adonnica Toler, museum administrator at Ritz Theatre and Museum. “She believed it was important to give the sawmill workers a voice.”
Not only did Hurston record the sawmill workers, she also recorded the stories of former slaves.
In 1927, she traveled to Plateau, Ala., to interview 86-year-old Cudjoe Lewis, the last survivor of the final slave ship to leave Africa bound for the U.S. She spent three months listening to Lewis’s experience of being transported on the Clotilda.
After her experience collecting oral histories, Hurston put her mind to fiction writing.
In 1937, Hurston published “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which is just one of seven books she wrote. It became her most well-known book and charts the life of a teenage black girl growing up in Florida.
The book’s character was like Hurston herself, who was born Jan. 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Ala., but moved to Eatonville, Fla., as a young child. At that time, Eatonville was an all-black community.
In 1904, her mother, Lucy Ann Hurston, died when Zora was only 9 years old. Her father, John Hurston, remarried shortly after and Zora was sent to Jacksonville to attend boarding school with her brother Bob and sister Sara later that year.
She attended the Florida Baptist Academy boarding school in Jacksonville but was expelled in 1905 because she was unable to pay her tuition. In Jacksonville, for the first time in her life, Hurston encountered racism that, she explained, “made me know that I was a little colored girl.”
Hurston continued to live in Jacksonville, spending a decade from 1904 to 1914 here with her brother, John Hurston, and sister-in-law, Blanche King Hurston, because she did not get along with her stepmom.
Her brother and sister-in-law’s house, located at 1473 Evergreen Ave., also had two businesses next door, a floral shop and a butcher shop, which they owned.
In 2013, the home was approved by the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission as a locally designated landmark. The floral and butcher shops were demolished in 2013.
However, Hurston did not stay in one place for too long.
She graduated from high school at Morgan Academy in Baltimore in 1918 and began studying at Howard University where she earned her associate degree in 1920.
Five years later, Hurston was accepted to Barnard College in New York. She received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1928 as the university’s first black graduate. She studied under Franz Boas, known as the “father of American anthropology” whose work had a consistent theme of race relations.
Hurston was able to attend college because Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College, assisted Hurston in getting accepted and awarded her a scholarship.
After graduation, Hurston was hired by the WPA to collect folklore and returned to Duval County.
“Her home port was in Jacksonville, but she went in and out of Jacksonville, working and doing her writing and poetry and entertainment,” said Mildred Murrell from Jacksonville, who is related to Hurston’s sister-in-law Blanche.
After Hurston collected the stories and work songs, she would travel up and down the East Coast performing and sharing them with people.
“She would go to the camps at night and would record the songs the workers would sing and stories they told to entertain themselves before falling asleep,” Toler said. “She recorded Eartha White singing a lullaby her mother, Clara White, would sing to her.”
In the 1920s, her travels led her to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where she would write articles that did not focus on racial tension, but instead focused on the black culture that was unlike anything in the South.
By observing the culture that was unfolding around her, she was able to write articles that described this culture. It was a task she loved from her first days at the WPA to her last as an author.
Hurston explained the importance and purpose of research in her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.”
“Research is formalized curiosity,” she wrote. “It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
Her research and focus on the African-American culture that was revolutionizing in New York inspired her to be an influential writer during the Harlem Renaissance.
In the early 1950s, Hurston traveled to Live Oak, a small town in North Florida, to write articles during the trial of Ruby McCollum, a wealthy black woman who shot her white lover Dr. C. Leroy Adams.
The trial of McCollum was considered a landmark trial because of the argument of civil and paramour rights.
Just as she had wanted working people and former slaves to have a voice, Hurston wanted McCollum’s voice to be heard.
Hurston contributed 16 stories to the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper that had the largest national circulation at that time. Of the 16 articles, only six were written about the actual trial; the remaining 10 covered McCollum’s life story in an attempt to change the perception of McCollum.
While most of the press reported McCollum shot Adams over a disputed medical bill, Hurston focused on providing a narrative and motivation for why McCollum killed Adams. The series echoed her previous writing style from “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which described a woman’s growth in self-understanding.
In 1960, Hurston died in poverty despite her successful publication of four novels, two folklore books, autobiography, short stories, essays and articles. She had married Albert Price, III, a member of Jacksonville’s black Sugar Hill society in 1939 but the pair divorced in 1943.
The Library of Congress contains four sketches and six full length plays written by Hurston. The library also contains audio recordings of her performing some of the work songs she collected throughout her career.
Over her lifetime, Hurston published more than 50 short stories, plays, essays and books, the most popular of which is “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” published in 1935.
Hurston was able to provide a voice to the voiceless and produce their stories and experiences in a manner the everyday person could understand.
“It’s no use of talking unless people understand what you say.”