My clothes were practically gone. Nickeing and dimering along was not getting me anywhere. So I went to the night high school in Baltimore and that did something for my soul.
–from Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road
Zora Neale Hurston was a collector of folklore, a trained anthropologist, and a spellbinding storyteller. She is best remembered for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and her role in the artistic and intellectual African American movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. In her novels, stories, and folklore collections, Hurston transcribed not only the colors and cadences of Southern, African American storytelling, but she captured the voices and forever preserved the cultures of the communities she loved.
As a female African American writer in the early 20th century, Hurston's life was a constant struggle to survive. Her success as a novelist is a testament not only to her talent, but to her tenacity. She spent her teen years working various domestic jobs and being shuttled between the homes of her adult siblings. Because of her need to keep a job, her schooling was intermittent at best.
In 1916, Hurston came to Baltimore as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan Theatre troupe. After an emergency appendectomy at Maryland General Hospital, she remained in Baltimore and attended high school at Morgan Academy, the high school arm of Morgan State University, graduating in 1918. Hurston was 26 years old at the time but claimed to be 16 in order to attend. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston says that she arrived at Morgan Academy with "only one dress, a change of underwear and one pair of tan oxfords." Despite her material disadvantages, Hurston excelled at Morgan Academy, was soon recognized for her sharp intelligence, and quickly became a favorite of her peers. During her time at Morgan, Hurston worked for Dr. Baldwin, a board member at Morgan College, assisting his wife with household tasks. While at Morgan Academy, Hurston made friends who later encouraged her to attend Howard University in Washington D.C.
Her first story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," was published in Howard University's literary magazine. She began submitting stories and plays to other literary magazines and soon caught the attention of New York's Opportunity magazine. In 1925, Hurston moved to New York City and quickly made connections with many of the Harlem Renaissance writers, including Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Bennett. While in New York, she studied anthropology at Barnard College and became interested in collecting and interpreting folklore. During the next twenty years, Hurston was active in the New York literary scene and traveled extensively to gather African American folklore in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, as well as in Haiti, and Jamaica. During this time, she wrote most of her novels, folklore collections, and plays. Despite her previous successes, by 1940, Hurston's career had begun to decline. In 1948 she moved to Fort Pierce, Florida where she wrote a series of magazine and newspaper articles while working as a maid and substitute teacher. After a series of strokes, Hurston died in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave in The Garden of Heavenly Rest.
In 1973, writer Alice Walker arranged for a headstone for Hurston's grave. The headstone reads: "Zora Neale Hurston — A Genius of the South — 1901-1960 — Novelist — Folklorist — Anthropologist." (Note: It was later determined that Hurston was born in 1891.)
Places of Interest:
- Zora Neale Hurston: Dust Tracks on a Road