The Upbringing and Education of Zora Neale Hurston
By Elisabeth Flynn, Caitlin Deasy, and Rachel Ruah
- Born on January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston was the fifth out of eight children.
- At the age of three, Hurston and her family moved to Eatonville, where they lived on five acres of land in an eight-room house.
- Her writings reveal no recollection of Alabama, and Hurston said that Eatonville always felt like home.
- She was immersed in black folk life.
- Her father, John Hurston, was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter who became the mayor of Eatonville.
- In 1904, her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, a former schoolteacher, passed away. At the age of thirteen, Hurston was devastated by the loss. During that time, her life took a drastic change. The years following her mother’s passing from 1905-1912 are known as her “lost years.”
- As a child, Hurston was encouraged by her mother to be adventurous and curious. She quoted her mother as saying, “’Jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
- After her mother’s death, John Hurston quickly remarried.
- Eatonville was the first all-black community in America.
- Although racism was abundant during these times, Hurston was shielded from this experience because of her upbringing in Eatonville.
- Eatonville was populated with 125 people when she moved there.
- In her writings, Hurston shows great appreciation for Eatonville’s independent culture, community, and enterprise. Of Eatonville, Hurston wrote, “There were three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, two schools, and no jailhouse.”
- Hurston viewed Eatonville as a Utopia and a place where black Americans could live as they desired, independent of white societies and their ways.
- Living in Eatonville shaped Hurston’s life and writing.
- Hurston captured the culture of the community in Eatonville through her writing and the town celebrates their connection to her through an annual festival.
- Of her early education, Hurston wrote, “I went to grammar school in the village and was generally considered a bright pupil, but impudent and a bit stubborn. There were many beatings, both at home and at school, and a great deal of talk at both places about ‘breaking my spirit.’”
- A mile down the road was a white village, inhabited by people from Wisconsin, Michigan, and upper New York State, who often visited Eatonville. They gave books to Zora and sent her more when they went North in the summer. Hurston was friendly with their children and felt no fear of “white faces,” despite the warnings she received from people in Eatonville. Of race, Hurston wrote, “I just see people. I see the man first, and his race as just another detail of his description.”
- In 1904, the same year her mother passed away, her father removed her from school and sent her to care for her brother’s children. Hurston was eager to leave the responsibility of her brother’s household.
- At sixteen, Zora became a member of a traveling theater, Gilbert & Sullivan, and began domestic work in a white household. The woman for whom she worked bought Zora her first book and arranged for her to attend high school at Morgan Academy in Baltimore.
Secondary and University Education
- In 1917, she attended Morgan Academy in Baltimore, where she completed her high school requirements.
- From 1921-1924, Hurston attended Howard Prep School and Howard University and earned an associate’s degree. She wrote her first short story for The Stylus, the university’s literary magazine.
- She started writing on her own, submitting her stories to various magazines. The editor of Opportunity, a Negro journal, encouraged her to go to New York City, where there was more opportunity for Negro writers and where she could mingle with literary people.
- In 1925, she moved to New York City, drawn by the circle of creative black artists (now known as the Harlem Renaissance), and she began writing fiction and became affiliated with figures like Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman and Jessie Fauset.
- Annie Nathan Meyer, founder of Barnard College, founded a scholarship for Hurston.
- In 1928, she completed her undergraduate education at Barnard College, where she studied under the well- known anthropologist Franz Boas and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
- In 1928, Hurston was awarded a fellowship by the Rosenwald Foundation for two years’ graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University.
- In 1939, Zora was awarded an honorary doctorate from Morgan State College.
- She was appointed the drama instructor at North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham and was invited to join the American Folklore Society, American Ethnological Society, and American Anthropological Society.
Mentors & Influences
Hurston had many important mentors throughout her early life. These mentors and influences ranged from family members and citizens of Eatonville to people she met while studying in college. Hurston’s mentors were very important to her in her everyday life. Without these people in her life, she would most likely not have achieved what she achieved.
Influences in Eatonville
Hurston was surrounded by successful African Americans at an early age. She could look to town hall and see plenty of African American men, including James Hurston, her father, formulating laws and governing Eatonville. When Hurston attended Sunday school in the town churches, she would see strong and successful African American women, including her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, directing the curriculum of the church. Since Hurston was surrounded by so many successful people at such a young age, she knew it was possible to rise up and be as successful as she wanted to be.
Langston Hughes was a big supporter and good friend of Hurston, and he had a large influence on her life. He once referred to Hurston as an “outrageous woman.”
In 1931, Hurston and Hughes collaborated on the play Mule Bone. Unfortunately, this collaboration led to the end of their relationship when Hurston attempted to submit their play for copyright, listing herself as the sole author.
Lorenzo Dow Turner
As Hurston studied and began to develop her writing skills, Lorenzo Dow Turner served as one of her mentors. The head of the English department, Turner worked with Hurston while she studied at Howard University from 1918-24. Turner’s family placed a strong emphasis on education, which inspired Turner to devote his life to education and helped him achieve academic success.
A German anthropologist, Franz Boas was a pioneer of modern anthropology who was known for having many students who went on to become very successful in life. Hurston studied anthropology under Boas while at Barnard College in NYC.
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