Zora Neale Hurston was an American author and anthropologist of the 19th century. She was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. Her parents John and Lucy Ann Hurston were former slaves. John Hurston was a pastor and he moved his family to Florida when Zora was still a young child. He later served as mayor of the town where they lived. Zora’s mother died in 1904 and her father remarried almost immediately. She was sent to boarding school in Jacksonville but was eventually kicked out when her father stopped paying her tuition. She worked as a maid for a travelling theatrical company in order to support herself and continue her education.
Hurston enrolled at Morgan College in 1917 and graduated a year later in 1918. Then she enrolled at Howard University for her undergraduate degree. There she studied Spanish, English and Greek along with public speaking and co-founded a student newspaper called “The Hilltop” where she published some of her earliest work. She completed her degree in 1920. In 1925 she was offered a scholarship to Barnard College at Columbia University, where she conducted research in anthropology with a distinguished anthropologist named Franz Boas. She received her B.A. in anthropology in 1928 at the age of 37, but spent two more years at Columbia working as a graduate student.
Hurston moved to the Harlem neighborhood in New York City where she made a number of influential friends including renowned poets and social activists such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. There was a burgeoning art scene in New York of which Zora soon became a part. Her apartment was noted as a famous meeting place for leading intellectuals of the time. She also travelled extensively to conduct research for her books such as the Southern states of U.S. as well as the Caribbean Islands. On each of her travels she noted the local cultural practices, the details of which she published in her 1935 book titled “Mules and Men”. She also contributed articles to several magazines, including the Journal of American Folklore. Over the next two years she travelled to Haiti and Jamaica to conduct further research and published her findings in her 1938 book titled “Tell My Horse”.
Hurston also wrote several plays such as “Mule-Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life” in collaboration with Langston Hughes. The work led to a dispute which eventually ended their friendship. She also wrote other plays such as The Great Day, From Sun to Sun and Color Struck. Zora’s most famous work was titled “Their Eyes Were Watching God” a novel published in 1937, written while she was travelling in Haiti. Her other notable works include “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” published in 1934, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” an essay published in 1928 and “Dust Tracks on a Road”, her autobiography published in 1942. In later life she worked as a freelance writer for various magazines and newspapers.
In 1948, Hurston was accused of molesting a 10 year old boy. The charges were proved to be false as she had been travelling in Honduras at the time of the alleged crime, but the rumors greatly affected her personal life. She was also in financial difficulties and was finding it hard to get her work published, especially after her open criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 1955 case of “Brown v. Board of Education” regarding segregation of black and white schools. She was married twice, once in 1927 to a jazz musician named Herbert Sheen which lasted for 4 years, and again in 1939 to a man 25 years her junior, which only lasted for 8 months. Zora Neale Hurston died broke and alone in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Florida. Interest in her work has been revived after her death and she is now remembered as one of the most talented African American folklorists and anthropologist.