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On January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was born in the tiny town of Notasulga, Alabama. She was the fifth of eight children in the Hurston household. Her father John was a carpenter, sharecropper, and a Baptist preacher; and her mother Lucy, a former schoolteacher. Within a year of Zora’s birth, the family moved to Eatonville, Florida; a town, which held historical significance as the first, incorporated Black municipality in the United States.

In 1904, thirteen-year-old Zora was devastated by the death of her mother. Later that same year, her unaffectionate father removed her from school and sent her to care for her brother’s children. A rambunctious and restless teenager, Zora was eager to leave the responsibility of that household. She became a member of a traveling theater at the age of sixteen, and subsequently began domestic work for a white household. It was in this home that Hurston’s intellectual spark was discovered. The woman for whom Zora worked, bought Zora her first book and arranged for her to attend high school at Morgan Academy (now known as Morgan State University) in Baltimore from which she graduated in June of 1918.

The following summer, Zora held jobs as a waitress and a manicurist. She then enrolled in Howard Prep School, followed by a distracted jaunt at Howard University. Although she spent nearly four years at the esteemed institution, she graduated with only a two-year Associates degree. It was during this time at Howard, that Hurston published her first stories. Starting in a college publication, then branching out into writing contests in newspapers and magazines, the early 1920’s marked the beginning of Zora Neale Hurston’s career as an author.

In 1925, Hurston headed to New York, just as the Harlem Renaissance was at its crest. She enrolled in Barnard College to study under Franz Boas, the father of anthropology. While there, Hurston married an old Howard boyfriend named Herbert Sheen, but the marriage was short-lived. After graduation, Zora returned to her hometown of Eatonville to collect folklore as material for her blossoming writing career. The late 1920’s marked a resurgence of her literary muse as Hurston published several works, and consequently gained financial sponsorship from wealthy New York patrons.

The 1930’s and early 1940’s marked the peak of Hurston’s literary career. It was during this time that she completed graduate work at Columbia, published four novels and an autobiography, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her writing brought her to the Caribbean where she became so intrigued by the practice of voodoo that she began incorporating these supernatural elements into her novels and stories. Although her work was receiving increasing acclaim from the white literati of New York, Zora often felt under attack from many members of the Black Arts Movement. She termed these detractors, members of the “niggerati”, for being close-minded in their criticism of her racial politics.

By the mid-1940s Hurston’s writing career was faltering. At one point she was arrested and charged with molesting a ten-year-old boy. Although later acquitted, the scars to her image remained permanent. Hurston was sinking into a depression as she witnessed publishers rejecting one after another of her submitted works.

Around 1950 Hurston returned to Florida, where she worked as a cleaning. After leaving this job, she made one last attempt to revive her writing career, and failed. After a slew of unsuccessful career changes (including newspaper journalist, librarian, and substitute teacher), Hurston became a broken, penniless recluse. She suffered a fatal stroke in 1959 and was buried at unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.

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