Black History Month: Zora Neale Hurston died alone, her belongings almost burned. Now there is a festival in her name.

Tim Walters
Florida Today
Walton Sun

When Deputy Patrick DuVal doused a fire to save the work of Zora Neale Hurston in 1960, he knew he was preserving something special.

However, he couldn't have foreseen just how important what he saved would become to the American literary canon.

“He’s an archival superhero because of his intervention,” said Florence Turcotte, the Literary Manuscripts Archivist for the University of Florida's George A. Smathers Libraries, where the rescued collection is housed in Gainesville.

As with many great luminaries, Hurston wasn’t appreciated until well after her death.

She died alone in 1960, and it took 15 years before her work was rediscovered and its literary value recognized.

Alice Walker, who became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983 for her novel “The Color Purple,” wrote an article in 1975 in Ms. magazine about how she had set out to find Hurston’s unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 1973.

“Zora Neale Hurston died without people knowing who she was,” said N.Y. Nathiri, executive director for the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. “She now is not just a national literary icon, she is an international literary icon.”

Walker’s article rekindled interest in Hurston’s work.

As professors began to study Hurston in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was soon realized that her work — which was once scorned by even her own African American community — gave an in-depth snapshot of what life was like for African Americans in the South in the early 1900s.

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“Because of her story, her rediscovery, people have come to appreciate it,” Turcotte said. “What Hurston was able to do was bridge the folklore. Since she’s been rediscovered, it’s been spreading like wildfire.”

Growing up

Hurston's story starts in the small town of Eatonville, located just north of Orlando.

Eatonville, which incorporated in 1887, is believed to be the first incorporated African American municipality in the United States. It is here where Hurston’s family settled when she was 3 years old in 1894. Zora was the fifth of eight children.

Her father, John Hurston, later became mayor. He was also the pastor of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church congregation.

"He was, you would say, a conservative man,” Nathiri said. “Her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, said to her children to jump at the sun — that they wouldn’t reach the sun but that they’d get off the ground. And so I think that represents a kind of difference in perspective from the mother to the father.”

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Zora was described as a precocious youth.

She'd said that as a girl, she would sit on the porch of her family’s home, and when white people passed by on the old Apopka Highway, sometimes she would hitch a ride with them, which worried her father.

Hurston’s mother died when she was 13, and her life drastically changed. Her father quickly remarried and she was sent away to a boarding school in Jacksonville.

When her father stopped sending money, Hurston's schooling stopped. She later went to night school to get back on track.

Her work

Hurston's talent was recognized by a college professor and she was accepted into Barnard College in New York City, where she became the school’s first African American female graduate. She followed up with graduate studies at Columbia University, where she studied anthropology.

“She was committed to getting an education,” Nathiri said. “That was a path that really was circuitous. She had many stops along the way but because she was just absolutely committed to getting an education, she was able to do that in her early 30s.”

Hurston's most popular novel was “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” written in 1937. It centers on an African American woman in her 40s retelling the events of her life in the early 20th century in Central Florida.

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When it first came out, it didn't receive favorable reviews. One of the reasons: how it portrayed men. The male characters in the novel objectified and controlled women.

It also featured a black heroine’s sensuality in a way that was uncommon in American literature at the time of its publication.

Those reasons coupled with the Southern black dialect Hurston used drew harsh criticism from many in the African American community, including noted authors Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

“There were some people who thought that Zora Neal Hurston was entirely too folksy,” Nathiri said. “She takes the dialect that many people were afraid of and she elevates that dialect into lyricism that up until her working with that mode of expression had not achieved the kind of classical beauty that she is able to bestow on it.”

Despite the critics, Hurston found some success in the 1920s and 1930s, traveling around and writing about many of her experiences.

She lived and wrote for a time in the small town of Eau Gallie, adjacent to Melbourne, on Florida's East Coast.

But life soon turned hard. When Hurston reached her 60s, now living in Fort Pierce, she struggled with health problems and money concerns. Hurston, having no children and no relatives nearby, entered a county-run nursing home. That's where she died in 1960.

The destruction of her work

“She was virtually a forgotten literary figure by this time,” Turcotte said. “When she passed, all of her possessions were ordered destroyed, including a number of manuscripts, a lot of letters and photos she had in her possession. They were all thrown into a burn barrel and set aflame by people working at nursing home.”

DuVal, who was just the second African American sheriff’s deputy in St. Lucie County, knew Hurston and knew the nursing home would be destroying her possessions.

When he arrived at the nursing home and saw the smoke billowing from the barrel, he grabbed a garden hose and extinguished the fire. Many of the items were charred, but they were saved, dried out and later donated to the University of Florida to be restored. Many still show the signs of wear from the burning.

"The collection was stabilized, microfilmed and boxed because of the incredibly delicate condition,” Turcotte said. “Each one was individually sorted. Pieces of paper were literally puzzled together, then put into Mylar sleeves. They were bound into volumes where they are kept, held together basically by static electricity inside the page and they are bound in these volumes where they are kept out of sunlight or damaging heat, they are kept between 60-to-65 degrees, 30-to-35 percent humidity, at all times.”

Today, the collection is sought after and studied by academia and students alike.

“It’s the most popular manuscript collection we have, by far,” Turcotte said.

Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave, which remained as such until 1973.

Hurston's grave

When Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt set out to find Hurston's grave in the Garden of the Heavenly Rest Cemetery in Fort Pierce, they found an unmarked grave in the area where Hurston was said to have been buried.

They marked it as hers.

“After the journey to find her grave Alice Walker put a tombstone there that says, ‘Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South,’” Nathiri said. “It is really easy now to find where she is buried.”

Every year since 1990, Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville hosts the “ZORA! Festival — Festival of the Arts and Humanities.”

The 31st annual festival just wrapped up. The event lasts nine days and draws roughly 30,000 people to the area.

“We now have the distinction of being America’s longest running arts and humanities festival, which celebrates the cultural contributions of people of African ancestry in this country and throughout the diaspora,” Nathiri said.

A small museum dedicated to Hurston is located in Eatonville. It exhibits African American history and storytelling. It also sells Hurston's books.

“Zora Neale Hurston has come fully formed as a part of what is called the American Canon of Literature,” Nathiri said. “Literary critics really identify ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ as a classic.'”

This story originally published to, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.