Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1871. When she was 2 years old, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, a peaceful and prosperous Black township. The Eatonville community set many examples of excellence for young Zora and her siblings, Sarah and John, including their parents John (Sr.) and Lucy Hurston. John Hurston was a pastor and served as the mayor of Eatonville for three terms starting in 1897. Lucy Ann Potts Hurston also worked as a church director, though she died unexpectedly in 1904 when Zora was a teenager. Soon after Lucy’s death, Zora’s father remarried to a younger woman. Their family was quickly torn apart, and John stopped providing financial support to his children. Zora worked several odd jobs while trying to finish high school, but struggled to stay afloat. After leaving school to tour with a Gilbert and Sullivan road show (as a maid to the lead singer), she ended up in Baltimore at the age of 26. Aiming to finish her high school education, she passed herself off as 16 years old. She would continue to say she was 10 years younger than her actual age for the rest of her life.
In the 1920s, Hurston became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, surrounding herself with artists and befriending poet Langston Hughes. In 1928 she graduated from Barnard College and by the early 1930s she had published her first novel, some short stories, and a collection of Southern black folklore. It was throughout the mid 1930s that Hurston published some of her most important works, including her most well-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Hurston was also an anthropologist, and published a field study on Voodoo practices, Tell My Horse, in 1938. She published her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948, and lived peacefully but penniless until suffering a stroke in 1960. Though her community attempted to raise a fund, they could not afford her headstone. Hurston laid in an unmarked grave until writer/admirer Alice Walker tracked down her site in 1973. She remains one of the most important and visionary writers of the 20th century.
This profile was created in 2022 as part of The Savvy Singer, an EXCEL Lab course at the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance and a collaboration with the Hampsong Foundation via the Classic Song Research Initiative.
Boyd, Valerie. “About Zora Neale Hurston”. The Official Website of Zora Neale Hurston, 2022. https://www.zoranealehurston.com/about/.
Cummins, Amy. “Hurston, Zora Neale”. Wiley Online Library. 2016.
This brief biography mentions Hurston’s anthropological work in the American South, and how some of her folklore has been adapted to children’s books in the early 2000s.