The Upbringing and Education of Zora Neale Hurston

By Elisabeth Flynn, Caitlin Deasy, and Rachel Ruah

Zora Neale Hurston


  • 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 Town Hall


  • 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.

Early Education

  • 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.

Howard University

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.

Columbia University

Educational Achievements

  • 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

Langston Hughes

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 Hughes

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.

Franz Boas

Franz Boas

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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The Influence of Hurston’s Childhood on her Writing

By: Michaela Paris and Brenna McKee

“There is no agony like holding an untold story inside of you.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora’s Beginnings

• Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama.
• Her family moved to Eatonville, Florida when Zora was a young child.
• Her writings show that she has no memories of Alabama and spent most of her time in the town of Eatonville.
• Hurston was a free spirit and voiced her opinion even as a child.

Zora Neale Hurston's Family

Zora’s Family

• Hurston’s father was a strict preacher while her mother encouraged her free spirit
• Hurston’s mother passed away in 1904 when she was 13 years old.
• Her father remarried soon after his wife’s passing. Hurston recalls her stepmother as too busy for children and that she came across as cold.

Zora’s Town of Eatonville

• Just outside of Orlando, Eatonville is described by Hurston as “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jail house.” (The Official Zora Neale Hurston Website)
• Eatonville was one of the first towns to incorporate African Americans.
• This was evident when someone like Zora looked around and saw all of the achievements of African Americans in the town
• For example, Zora’s father John worked in Eatonville’s town hall.

Zora’s Writings

• After her studies in Howard University, Hurston went to New York in 1925.
• This was during the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, which inspired Hurston to write fiction.
• Hurston’s most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937. Her other famous works of literature include Jonah’s Gourd VineMoses Man of the Mountain, and her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road.

Zora’s Childhood in her Writing

Their Eyes Were Watching God“The sun was gone…It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.”

• This quote from Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God reflects Hurston’s childhood in Eatonville, growing up around powerful African-American men such as her father. The men in the story, just like her father and the other men in her life from Eatonville, ran the town when people of other races were not there.

“The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off.”

• This quote, also from Their Eyes Were Watching God, refers to the main character looking for a more freeing life. This is something Hurston also searched for growing up with her strict father and cold step mother.

“This freedom is more than a notion Moses. It is a good thing”

• This quote is from Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain. Although slavery is not something Hurston witnessed first hand, growing up she was surrounded by the oppression of African Americans.
• Even some of the events and characters in her stories reflect things in Hurston’s life. One example of this is in Jonah’s Gourd Vine, the main character becomes a pastor for the church, just as her father was.
• It is evident that her childhood relationships, surroundings, and events majorly influenced her most popular books.

Works Cited

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.

—. Jonah’s Gourd Vine. New York, NY: Perennial Library, 1990. Print.

—. Edited by Henry Louis. Gates. Moses, Man of the Mountain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.

Eatonville and Zora Neale Hurston

By Rachel Gonzalez, Sarah Clark, and Krista Rodden

Eatonville Town Hall

History of Eatonville

• On August 15, 1887, 27 registered voters—all black men—met in a building they called Town Hall and voted unanimously to incorporate the town. Eatonville was born and history was made.
• Founded in 1886 by John Clarke.
• First all-black community in the United States.
• Blacks could hold offices and positions of authority.
• Founded by ex-slaves and their families.
• John Hurston helped to form the laws in Eatonville and also held the position of mayor three times.
• Eatonville was one of many established race colonies.
• It was centered on education and religion.
• Many of the people in Eatonville really enjoyed storytelling, which ended up influencing Hurston.

History of Eatonville Schools

• Hungerford was the first school for negroes in Eatonville founded in 1889.
• Students were taught set goals and to and to work toward achievement.
• Russel C. Calhoun and his wife, Mary, founded the school. They attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and arrived in Eatonville in 1888. They wanted to start a school just for negro boys and girls. At first, there was only one student, whom they taught basic academic subjects and home economics. They funded the school by farming on the land that was later used to build the school.
• In addition to academics, the students also tended to the crops, maintained the buildings, prepared their meals, and began learning a trade. Vocational training was a large part of the education.
• Edward C. Hungerford, Mary Brown, Booker T. Washington, and George B. Cleutt all donated to help support the Hungerford school.
• In 1905, the campus was made up of 300 acres and ten buildings.
• There were dormitories on campus for girls, boys, and teachers since people would come from all over Florida to attend the school.
• In 1931, the school was almost shut down; however, thanks to Captain L. E. Hall it was saved and restored.
• John and Lillian Hall ran the school starting 1940. They both attended Rust College in Mississippi
• Many of the buildings had issues and were falling apart, which cost the school a lot of money to repair.
• Around 1945, college prep classes were added to the curriculum.
• In 1950, the school was turned over to the Orange County Public School System.
• In 1951, there were many new additions, including an elementary school.
• The school was named one of the top schools in Florida—Hungerford excelled academically, vocationally, and athletically.
• The majority of students went on to college and graduated with degrees for high-paying jobs.
• The students were encouraged to “go forth and serve.” They did countless community service and outreach activities.
• In 1967, the school was changed into an alternative school to provide vocational training and career education for non-college-bound students. Local citizens began to send their children outside the community to traditional high schools. The local residents no longer had ties because the student body was now made up of students from other communities who returned home at the end of the school day.

Zora Neale Hurston

• Born on January 7, 1891
• Moved to Eatonville when she was 3, from Alabama
• In 1904, 13-year-old Zora was devastated by the death of her mother.
• She attended Howard, Bernard, and Columbia Universities
• She studied anthropology
• Most of her stories were derived from events and people in Eatonville, Florida

Their Eyes Were Watching GodHurston in Eatonville

• As Hurston described it, Eatonville is “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.”
• Hurston was never indoctrinated with inferiority.
• She was considered the native daughter of Eatonville.
• She came back to Eatonville after graduating from college to study the townspeople she had grown up with.
• She included painted images of Eatonville in her famous books Mules of Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Hurston's grave

Eatonville After Zora

• Hurston brought light and pride to Eatonville and African-Americans all over the country and Eatonville has a lot of cultural importance today.
• She has inspired African-Americans today and other writers such as Toni Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning author.
• Hurston’s works were forgotten after her death, but, in 1980, Robert E. Hemenway wrote a literary biography about her that made her popular again.
• In 1988, Orange County officials tried to put a five-lane highway through Eatonville.
• The community planned a Hurston festival to show what the highway would ruin in Eatonville. Thousands of people attended the festival each year and the highway project was eventually cancelled
• History and culture was revived in Eatonville and Hurston was a local hero.

Zora Neale Hurston Festival

Dedications to Zora in Eatonville

• In 2006, a library was named after Hurston and is located on Kennedy Boulevard.
• In 1990, the Zora Neale Hurston Museum of Fine Arts was established. The mission of the museum is “to educate the public about Eatonville’s historic and cultural significance” and “to use the community’s heritage and cultural vibrancy for its economic development”
• The Zora Neale Hurston Festival is held each year in January in Eatonville. Thousands of local residents and tourists attend each year for the multi-day event. The festival holds museum exhibitions, public discussions, concerts, and more to celebrate Hurston’s works.


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Zora Neale Hurston – Against the Norm

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