This Day in History

Jan. 7, 1891: Zora Neale Hurston Born

Time Periods: Industrial Revolution: 1877 - 1899
Themes: African American, Women's History
Zora Neale Hurston | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Zora Neale Hurston with three children playing a singing game in Eatonville, Florida. Source: Lomax collection at the Library of Congress.

Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist, anthropologist, and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, was born in Notasulga, Alabama on Jan. 7, 1891.

Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Author Alice Walker brought Hurston’s work to contemporary public attention.

The Florida Memory Project has a rich collection of photos, essays, and oral history interviews from Hurston’s work with Stetson Kennedy and the Works Project Administration (WPA) in Florida. Here is a short description of her documentation of labor in turpentine camps:

In 1939, Hurston went to Cross City in Dixie County, Florida, to find candidates for recording interviews, songs and life histories of interesting, everyday people. In an unusual stroke of luck, officers of the Aycock-Lindsey Company allowed her to visit their turpentine camp and collect stories, songs and other information from their laborers, who were mostly African-American. Such transparency was rare; the turpentine industry in Florida had a history marred with examples of reprehensible labor practices, unlawful debt peonage and violent discipline.

Hurston, however, was able to visit the camp, along with other representatives of the Florida Federal Writers’ Project (FWP.) Her essay, “Turpentine,” traced her travels through the pine forests with an African-American “woods rider” named John McFarlin. Her work on Florida’s turpentine camps is still considered authoritative. Continue reading.

To bring Hurston’s story to the classroom, we recommend the related resources listed below including the film Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun and two chapter books for upper elementary and middle school, Zora and Me and Scraps of Time. In addition, the first chapter of the NCTE teachers guide on Hurston is free online and provides excellent background.