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Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography

About the Playwright

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Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography

Zora Neale Hurston in 1938; photo by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress

Childhood and Education

In recent years, Zora Neale Hurston has received acclaim for her work, but the sheer volume and influence of her output as a writer, anthropologist, and folklorist is still underestimated. Much of Hurston’s writing was directly inspired by her years coming of age in the South and the ethnographic research that later led her back to that community, tying her literary and anthropological practices together. 

Though she was born in Alabama in 1891, Hurston considered Eatonville, Florida to be her true home. The family moved when she was a toddler. Eatonville, America’s first incorporated Black township, had a great impact on Hurston’s developing sense of self as she grew up.

Hurston’s mother passed away in 1904, putting an end to what had until that point been a happy childhood. Her father remarried a woman with whom Hurston had a fraught relationship, and the couple sent her away for a brief stint at a Baptist boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. Not much is known about the ten years of Hurston’s life that followed—she referred to them as “her haunted years.” Somewhere in those lost years, Hurston began to use 1901 as the year of her birth in order to continue her education. She went on to claim that she was ten years younger than she was for the rest of her life. 

In 1917, Hurston continued her education at Morgan State University’s high school and then matriculated at Howard University, where she received an associate degree in 1920. Her experiences at Howard would prove to be formative for her literary career. She joined a salon run by Georgia Douglas Johnson and met other writers such as Bruce Nugent, Jean Toomer, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, many of whom would become her colleagues during the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s first published works were in the magazine for Howard’s literary club. She also began her studies in drama at Howard, though it was not her first exposure to theatre—she had worked as a maid for the lead singer of a Gilbert and Sullivan touring troupe as a teenager.

Move to New York

Hurston arrived in New York City in January of 1925, and soon after, her work found an audience. She entered two pieces into a literary contest run by Opportunity magazine, won second place for both, and made an impression at the awards dinner, where she met future friends and collaborators Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Carl Van Vechten. Hurston then won a scholarship to finish her studies at Barnard College, where she completed research with the anthropologist Franz Boas and the folklorist Ruth Benedict. Hurston graduated from Barnard in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She was Barnard’s first Black graduate.

The 1920s and ‘30s were fruitful for both Hurston’s literary career and her anthropological research. After graduating from Barnard, she spent two years pursuing a PhD in anthropology at Columbia, where she continued her work with Boas. She traveled to the South and the Caribbean to research and record the folktales, music, and other cultural practices of the Black communities there, in addition to publishing stories and plays in journals and anthologies such as Opportunity Magazine, Fire!!, and Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea.

It was also during this time that Hurston first experienced success as a dramatist. One of the prizes awarded to her by Opportunity in 1925 was for her play Color Struck, which the magazine later published. It is unknown how many plays Hurston wrote during her career, as many of them are presumed to be lost—but the texts of ten of her dramatic works have been preserved and made available by the Library of Congress, including The Mule-Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts, which she wrote with Langston Hughes. Other theatrical works to which Hurston is known to have contributed include the white-authored musical revues Jungle Scandals and Fast and Furious. Perhaps most notably, she self-produced The Great Day: A Program of Original Negro Folklore at The Golden Theatre on Broadway in 1932. She wrote, directed, choreographed, performed in, and financed the show, which featured 41 other actors. After her years in New York, Hurston also spent time working in the drama departments of both Bethune-Cookman College and North Carolina Central University, cementing her love for the theatre and her desire to impart that love to future generations.

Later Years and Death

Hurston spent the late 1930s and early 1940s on a variety of projects and in a few different jobs. She received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936 that allowed her to travel to Jamaica and Haiti, where she wrote her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She worked for the Works Progress Administration from 1938 to 1939 and then published her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road in 1942. She married more than once, but none of the marriages seem to have lasted long or had a significant impact on her life and career. The end of Hurston’s life was spent back in the South, where she lived out her days with little money and no acclaim. She wrote freelance articles for magazines and newspapers while also working as a maid. Estranged from her family, Hurston died from heart disease in a welfare home in January of 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida. 

It is largely due to the efforts of writer Alice Walker that Hurston’s grave and her work were rediscovered and brought back into the public eye. Walker chronicled her visit to Eatonville and Hurston’s grave in an article for Ms. magazine titled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in 1975. She commissioned a new, more appropriate gravestone for Hurston’s burial site that read, “Zora Neale Hurston: ‘A Genius of the South’: Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist, 1901 – 1960.” ♦

Learn more about Zora Neale Hurston from our friends at the Mint Theater Company.

Read More:

Historical Context

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History of the Play

Read more: Timeline of Black American Theatre

Read more: Literary Ancestry Essay Series

Read more: Recommended Plays and Further Reading

REFERENCES
About This Collection.Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress. Library of Congress.

Boyd, Valerie. “About Zora Neale Hurston. The Official Website of Zora Neale Hurston. The Zora Neale Hurston Trust.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Zora Neale Hurston". Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Jan. 2021.

DeMattio, S. J. “Zora Neale Hurston (Jan. 7, 1981 - Feb. 8, 1960).Lost Voices in Black History. Mint Theatre Company.

“The Great Day: A Program of Original Negro Folklore.” Prentiss Taylor Papers, 1885-1991. 1932. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Lillios, Anna. “Hurston’s Life.Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive. University of Florida. 

Norwood, Arlisha. "Zora Hurston." National Women's History Museum. National Women's History Museum, 2017.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Society of One: Zora Neale Hurston, American Contrarian.The New Yorker, 9 Feb. 1997.

Walker, Alice. “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” Ms. Magazine, March 1975, pp. 74-89.