Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., but her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., an all-black incorporated town, when she was still a baby. Hurston was thirteen when her mother died. Her father sent her to boarding school in Jacksonville, Fla., where she encountered Jim Crow segregation for the first time. When she returned home, Hurston was unable to get along with her new stepmother and left. In 1915, Hurston joined a traveling theater troupe as a maid and dresser. In 1917, she left the troupe in Baltimore, where she lied about her age (taking off ten years) in order to qualify for a free high school education. A year later, she moved to Washington, DC, where she finished her high school diploma at Howard Academy, then enrolled in college classes at Howard University. Hurston began writing at Howard and published her first short story in the university literary magazine. In 1925, she moved to New York and became involved with the artists and writers collectively known as the Harlem Renaissance. She impressed people with her work so much that she was given a scholarship to Barnard College, where she earned a BA in 1928. While at Barnard, she developed an interest in anthropology, and, both before and after graduation, she made trips to the southern United States and the Bahamas, collecting black folklore material.
In 1932, Hurston returned to Florida to live and write. She published a book of folk stories and her first novel and continued to pursue her interest in anthropology. In 1936 and 1937, she received back-to-back Guggenheim Fellowships for travel to Jamaica and Haiti to study voodoo practices. On her return, she published her findings in a book. She also wrote two more novels and an autobiography, along with numerous articles and short stories. In 1947, she traveled to Honduras to write another novel and to study the folklore there. Upon her return to New York in 1948, her life was shattered by a false accusation of child molestation. Because she was able to prove that she was out of the country when most of the alleged acts were said to have taken place, her accusers were discredited and the charges dismissed. The national publicity, however, devastated her personally and severely damaged her career. Hurston returned to Florida and worked at whatever jobs she could find: maid, schoolteacher, librarian, newspaper reporter, and ghostwriter. She continued to publish occasional articles and short stories, but all her subsequent novels were rejected by her publisher. Late in 1959, she suffered a stroke and was placed in a nursing home. She died there in early 1960 after a second stroke.
Zora Neale Hurston’s work reflected her pride in her black American cultural heritage. Her writing incorporated black dialect, folk stories, and religious traditions, both Christian and non-Christian. She refused to be pigeon-holed by critics, and she presented an honest affirmative picture of black life.
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Photo by Carl Van Vechten; courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LC-USZ62-79898.
Last updated on May 30, 2008.