This week, let’s highlight a famous author who made Florida home: Zora Neale Hurston. Next week, we’ll continue our history-filled list of historic places throughout the state. Welcome to Florida Time, a weekly column about Florida history. If you’re new here, you are in for a treat.
Readers: Over the course of Florida Time, we’ll be highlighting famous authors who, at some point, made Florida home. We’ll especially focus on those who featured Florida in their work.
Earlier this year, we told you about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Today: A contemporary, and a friend of Rawlings, and one of the more colorful personalities in Florida’s literary history: Zora Neale Hurston.
She wrote with passion, poetry and humor about the joys and turmoils of blacks living and dying far beyond the main roads of central and southern Florida.
“Miss Zora,” who rose to prominence, was gradually ostracized by her own people and died destitute in Fort Pierce, to be reborn as only an artist can be: through her work.
Her mother once told her, “You jump at de sun.” “We might not land on the sun,” Hurston explained, “but at least we would get off the ground.”
Read more Florida history: Here are Florida’s top 25 stories of all time
She was raised in Eatonville, north of Orlando. It was America's first incorporated all-black town when it was founded in 1887. Black residents of adjacent Maitland, most of them freed slaves, had bought 112 acres and named the place for Josiah Eaton, a local white landowner who’d helped them with the purchase. The initial population was 300; a century later it would be 3,000.
After Zora’s mother died, her father, a tenant farmer and pastor, handed her off to relatives. She was a maid, graduated from high school and attended Howard University in Washington.
She was 30 when she wrote her first story in 1921 but lied about her age by a decade, making her an undeserving prodigy. She moved to New York in 1925 and was swept up in the Harlem Renaissance.
Her career reached its pinnacle with 1937's “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a swirling tale of a woman's journey to independence that climaxes with the Glades' great 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. While she was in the Caribbean or New Orleans when the storm struck, she’d spent time in the Glades and much of her narrative is based on actual accounts she collected after the disaster.
Florida Time archives: Get caught up on the stories you’ve missed
But fame didn't always translate to fortune; Zora never made even $1,000 on a single book. She once worked as a secretary to novelist Fanny Hurst. Two marriages failed. Peers accused her of Uncle Tomism after she became a political conservative, decrying integration.
Her last novel, ‘Seraph on the Suwannee,’ was published in 1948. Later, she was a maid, a substitute teacher and a columnist for the black weekly Fort Pierce Chronicle.
She died broke in a Fort Pierce nursing home in 1960. Friends donated for her funeral.
In 1973, Alice Walker (‘The Color Purple’) paid for a marker for Zora’s grave. Two years later, Walker wrote a magazine essay on Zora’s life and work, and in 1978, Robert Hemenway, later chancellor of Kansas University, published her literary biography. Zora’s posthumous comeback was off and running.
Eatonville's Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1990. The Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities runs every January in the town, honoring the woman who prophesied: "When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world.''
READER REWIND: What’s your Florida story? Share it with Eliot by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418.
Next week: Freedom Tower
Last week: This building withstood storms, invaders and so much more
A reader asks: Mr. Kleinberg, I tripped across your article about Florida county names. Ever wonder whether the two Duval Counties were related? They are! I was doing research on an officer who served in Fort Sam [Houston]. Here's what I found pertinent to the subject at hand: On Jan 30, 1870, Cyrus Swan Roberts had married Ann "Nannie" Rollins DuVal who was born in 1848 in Austin, Texas. She was the granddaughter of William Pope Duval, first civilian governor of Florida Territory from 1822 through 1834. Duval County, Florida is named after him. Nannie was also the niece of Captain Burr Harrison Duval, executed at Goliad during the Texas Revolution, for whom Duval County, Texas is named." - Jackie D., Fort Sam Houston, Texas
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.