Zora Neale Hurston at Rollins College
By Maurice J. O’Sullivan, Jr., and Jack C. Lane
(from Zora in Florida, edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel. Gainesville, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1991, pp. 130-145)
In the spring of 1932 Zora Neale Hurston, recently returned from New York City to Eatonville—“my native village” (Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942, 208)—to shape her folklore notes into what would become Mules and Men (1935), stopped in The Bookery, a bookstore in neighboring Winter Park, to ask for advice about publishing her manuscript. The owner, H. S. Thompson, suggested she contact Edwin Osgood Grover, who held the curious title Professor of Books at Rollins College in Winter Park and who had spent thirty years in the publishing industry in Boston, New York, and Chicago. Her letter to Grover would not only begin a long friendship with him and the college, but it also would help resurrect her flagging literary career.
Hurston’s return to Eatonville had been a strategic retreat in the face of personal, economic, and professional crises. A number of her friendships, most notably with Langston Hughes, had proved unable to bear the weight of her strong personality. Even before the Great Depression dispersed the community of writers, artists, and intellectuals who gathered in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston had found a patron in Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white woman who supported her field research in the South and the Bahamas. But that relationship was now coming to an end. Hurston’s work in developing a black folk theater had not found financial support. And, according to a brief, unpublished memoir by Grover, the manuscript of Mules and Men, which she had just finished, “was in the hands of a typist in Philadelphia, but Zara didn’t have money to pay for getting it out of hock”1.
In a letter to Grover on June 15, 1932, Hurston wrote, “I feel that the real Negro theatre is yet to be born and I don’t see why it should not first see the light of day in Eatonville. I have lots of material prepared to this end and would love to work it out with the help of some one who knows a lot that I don’t” (Hurston Papers). Her interests in folklore and theater had begun to come together in 1926 when she discussed with Langston Hughes the possibility of an opera about black folk life. She and Hughes worked on the project which became Mule Bone, a work never produced or published in its entirety. Her belief that theater was the perfect medium for expressing black culture led to frustrating experiences working on black revues like Fast and Furious (1931) and the unfortunately titled Jungle Scandals (1931). An attempt to transcend such exploitative work, The Great Day, a folk opera based on her research and performed in New York at the John Golden Theater on January 10, 1932, had met significant critical but little economic success.
Grover, accepting the role of academic patron—Hurston’s life at times seems to involve a succession of patrons—introduced her to Robert Wunsch, a young theater director at Rollins who had been developing parallel ideas. Bob Wunsch had come to the college from the University of North Carolina where he had roomed briefly with Thomas Wolfe. He was one of many young artists attracted to the Winter Park campus because of its reputation for innovative arts programs. Sinclair Lewis, in fact, had praised Rollins in his acceptance speech for the 1930 Nobel Prize for the college’s “interest in contemporary creative writing.”
Because Wunsch had been searching for ways to develop among his students “a genuine interest in American folk material” (Wunsch to Holt, October 29, 1932), the possibility of working with Hurston offered both a source of material and a contact with the community. His excitement is apparent in a letter he wrote to Hamilton Holt, president of Rollins:
I have set as my objective for the year the breaking of the ground, as it were: to make the students sensitive to the lyric beauty of swamp and citrus grove, sense the pageantry of the Ponce de Leon explorations, find the drama in the life of fisherfolk and sponge divers and cowboys, sense the tragedy and comedy of the boom days, revivify the old days of the missions and fortresses—in a word, to get the students to “dip their nets where they are.”
I can think of no better way to introduce the students to the honest-to-the-soil material at their own doorsteps than to present to them in a program of folk songs and dancers a group of Eatonville negroes, headed by Zora Hurston, Zora, a national authority on negro ways, has won the enviable place for herself in American dramatics. (October 29, 1932)
Wunsh’s proposal came at a difficult time for both Rollins and its president. For the past ten years the college had been undergoing a transformation that would tum a small failing conservative institution into a nationally recognized progressive college. The impetus for this change was the ascendancy of Hamilton Holt to the presidency. A former editor of the Independent, a prominent and influential liberal magazine, Holt became an active participant in the national Progressive Movement, particularly in its internationalist wing. Thus, he brought with him to Rollins not only a national reputation but also a liberal outlook. A college ripe for change had found itself a reformist president.
As with many progressives who thought about education, Holt rejected the prevailing college educational pedagogy of lecture/recitation. Instead, he proposed a student-centered rather than a subject-centered approach to learning. Basing his educational ideas on his experience in the Independent editorial rooms, Holt proposed that classrooms should resemble workrooms where apprentice students worked closely and cooperatively with master teachers. The essence of this relationship, Holt argued, was in the condition of association, based on the idea that learning was a cooperative effort. The solution to the college malaise lay in transferring the associational experiences of the newsroom into the classroom.
With the help of his faculty, Holt immediately instituted a classroom reform he called the Conference Plan. According to the plan, classes would be arranged in two-hour blocks on a workshop model with professors designing courses that would allow students, with all required books, sources, and references available in the classroom, to work and study under the teacher’s supervision. The teacher functioned as a resource person rather than as a lecturer.
Within a few years, with the Conference Plan well established, Holt turned his attention to progressive curriculum reform to match the classroom transformations. Aware of how closely the new Rollins program had drawn on the principles of the progressive education movement, Holt decided to call upon the leading theoretician of that movement, John Dewey, to head a curriculum conference at Rollins. Bringing together the leading theoreticians and practitioners of progressive education m January 1931 at Winter Park, the conference successfully established a coherent set of principles for college curricula.
By the following year, however, Rollins was facing a more practical crisis that would have equally important effects on higher education in the United States. As the depression cut deeply into the college’s resources, Holt asked his faculty to take a 30 percent cut in salaries. A faculty committee questioned the need for the cut and, by implication, Holt’s stewardship. At the same time, the financial crisis was exacerbate by an ideological conflict between Holt and a group of faculty led by John Andrew Rice, professor of classics. Among their many differences of opinion with the president, this faction had begun challenging the efficacy of the Conference Plan.
For years Holt had seen himself as a progressive in a southern community, Winter Park, full of New Englanders and harboring a profound conservatism about change. He saw himself waging daily fights to protect controversial faculty members. When Royal France, professor of economics, became president of the state’s Socialist Party or when France invited Hurston to stay at his home in Winter Park as a guest or when the Rollins faculty lobbied the state legislature in Tallahassee to prevent the passage of a bill prohibiting the teaching of evolution, it became Holt’s responsibility to deal with the wrath of the college’s neighbors.
John Andrew Rice, however, proved too much for him. A popular teacher and leader of the college’s dissidents, Rice represented a confrontational style that Holt abhorred. Implicit in much of Rice’s opposition was an objection to the administration’s paternalistic style. Holt fired Rice at the end of the 1932-33 academic year. The variety of charges Holt leveled against Rice—charges ranging from insubordination to wearing a jockstrap at the college beach house—indicate the depth of Holt’s anger. When a committee from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) led by the distinguished philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy, investigated the firing, it concluded, in the slightly stilted language of official reports, that Holt’s charges “would in most American institutions of higher education not be regarded as grounds” for dismissal (Duberman, 26).2
Despite his vindication in the AAUP report, Rice and a group of supporters fired after publicly defending him left Rollins with the idea of starting an experimental college. One of Rice’s supporters who was not fired but resigned in protest was Bob Wunsch, who not only suggested Black Mountain, North Carolina, as the site of the new college but joined the academic expatriates. Black Mountain College opened in 1933 with Rice as rector. When he stepped down in 1939, Wunsch replaced him until 1945 when he was forced to resign after a scandal.
But in the fall of 1932 the actions that would lead to Holt’s purge were several months in the future. Then he was still hoping to find some ground for compromise with Rice and his supporters. Wunsch, anxious to promote folk theater, had sought the president’s permission to produce Hurston’s play at Rollins. Holt replied with a prudently worded letter reflecting not only his personal style and his awareness of the economic and personnel crises he was facing, but also his sensitivity to the Winter Park community’s conservatism. His solution was to suggest—Holt rarely commanded—a set of guidelines that recognized the surrounding community’s sensibilities:
I see no reason why you should not put on in recreation hall the negro folk evening under the inspiration of Zora Hurston, but I assume you will go over the thing enough to know that there will be nothing vulgar in it. Of course we cannot have negroes in the audience unless there is a separate place segregated for them and I think that would be unwise.
I do not think I would advertise it very much outside our own faculty and students but I may be wrong about this. (Holt to Wunsch, November 1, 1932)3
With this cautious support, Wunsch could begin his collaboration with Hurston. In the middle of November he brought one of his English classes to hear her talk about her life and research. After discussing her background, she explained to the students her dissatisfaction with John Golden’s production of The Great Day. According to an account in the college newspaper, the Sandspur, she told the students that she wanted to work “with a cast of the true negro type rather than the New Yorkized negro [to develop] a production of enduring value” (November 16, 1932, I).
Hurston ended the class with stories, songs, and a sermon from her research. Clearly overwhelmed by both the material and the lecturer—“pure poetry, full of poetic figures, utterly lovely” (November 16, 1932, I), the class won from her a promise to take it soon to a black church service in Orlando. The students’ rapture may account for the identification of Hurston’s home town as “Edenville.”
For the rest of the year Hurston and Wunsch worked on her “negro folk evening.” The production, called From Sun to Sun (see program, appendix 1), was essentially the same as The Golden Day, her New York performance at the John Golden Theater. Wunsch, clearly recognizing the qualifications in Holt’s letter, decided to hold the show’s premier on January 20, 1933, as the first production for a new experimental community theater, The Museum, in Fern Park.4 It was so successful that the play was repeated the following week and eventually brought on campus for a performance on February 11 in a major theater, Recreation Hall. Although the reviews reflected the values of their day, they recognized the power of Hurston’s work. A brief note in the Orlando Morning Sentinel concluded with a comment about the audience’s appreciation: “An audience of invited guests showed its unmistakable approval by calling the performers back repeatedly for encores” (January 25, 1933, 5). The Winter Park Herald’s cultural column, “The Listening Post,” praised not only the achievement of the premier, but the idea behind it:
This negro folk-lore as presented in the Museum was perhaps the most dramatic entertainment … that has been given in Winter Park. It gripped the audience with a sense of native rhythm and harmony which is hard to fully comprehend unless seen and felt. … What the negro has brought to America is too vital to be allowed to vanish from the earth. His barbaric color adds pattern to the Nordic restraint about him. America needs this because its civilization, like Minerva, sprung full grown from the head of Europe, and so there is not the wealth of native folk-lore as in Europe, Asia, Africa, and other continents where civilization had to grow through long ages. (January 26, 1933, 5)
The Sandspur offered a similar rave for the January 27 performance, “one of the most effective productions given at the college this year.” After praising the work’s “unselfconscious spontaneity,” the review attempted to capture the spirit of the evening in describing the show’s climax: “The dancers, at first wary, as if feeling their ground, gradually became more and more heated, until one expected and hoped for an orgy. The rhythm pressing harder and harder into one’s very being, the seductive movements of the gayly-clad bodies, the shining eyes in their dark faces, brought thunderous applause and continuous demands for more” (February 8, 1933, 3). Like most appreciation of black art in the thirties, the reviews emphasized the primitivism and rhythm of Hurston’s songs and stories.
The only discordant note during the performances came from a Winte Park Herald columnist, Will M. Traer, on February 2. In his column, “Some Observations,” he responded to the Herald’s review with the kind of comments Holt and his faculty regarded as too typical of their neighbors:
I note mention in The Listening Post of Zora Hurston’s effort to advance negro music and dramatic art. Something very wonderful along the line can no doubt be accomplished by those who know what they are doing. Without knowing anything about Zora Hurston’s work along this line, I want to express an opinion that to me the grand kind of negro music is coming from a simple soul, both words and music…. The most true to life negro song that I have heard during late years is the “Blue Yodd” by Jimmy Rogers. This song might not interest some but it draws a wonderful picture for me of a lazy, indolent negro telling his troubles to the world. (February 2, 1933. 6)5
But Traer’s disapproval, grounded in self-confessed ignorance, was a clear exception to the praise Hurston’s From the Sun gathered. The college community was so pleased with her work that in March, when the noted dancer Ruth St. Denis visited campus, Zora Hurston “and her company of negroes” were invited to offer a special half hour performance. Apparently the administration was still sensitive to the local community, because “[t]he audience included only the directors of the Museum and several invited students and townspeople” (Sandspur, March 8, 1933, 3).
Hurston’s involvement with the college also had a significant effect on her professional life outside central Florida. Soon after working on From Sun to Sun with her, Bob Wunsch read one of Hurston’s short stories, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” to a creative writing class and sent it to Story magazine, which published it in August 1933. After reading the story, Bertram Lippincott wrote on behalf of his publishing company to ask if she was working on a novel. Never one to lose an opportunity, Hurston told Lippincott that she was and then immediately began writing Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934). Her appreciation to Wunsch is apparent m the book’s curiously worded and spelled dedication, a dedication that seems to recognize his courage in a number of difficult environments:
To Bob Wunsch
Who is one of those long-wingded angels
Right round the throne
Go gator and muddy the water.
By the time the book appeared in 1934, Wunsch had spread his wings and soared to Black Mountain.
Hurston remained fond of Rollins, and especially Edwin Osgood Grover even after Wunsch’s departure and Holt’s purge of the Rice faction. In November 1933 Grover wrote her to pass on a request: “President Holt has asked me what has become of you, and whether you had more things to put on at Rollins this winter” (November 15, 1933, Hurston Papers). Never short of inspiration or material, she presented All De Live Long Day (see program, appendix 2) on January 5, 1934, in Recreation Hall.6 Like From Sun to Sun, the play followed a group of black workers through the day. It was not, however, quite as well received in the college paper as her earlier work. Even the praise seems qualified by a reviewer who clearly misses some of the earlier material:
It is felt that no criticism should be attempted. Presented humbly, as it was, with all the spontaneous enthusiasm and brilliance of natural artists, this play can arouse only appreciation and a curious exuberance in those who see it.
To those who are familiar with the work of Zora Hurston, there was something disappointing in that all of the features so popular in last year’s production From Sun to Sun could not be included in this program. However, more indigenous material and new talent made of All De Live Long Day the best thing of its kind—a most en1ightening and worthwhile entertainment. (Sandspur, January 10, 1934, I)
Hurston’s success at Rollins, together with the college’s imprimatur, led to more productions of her work around the state, an invitation by Mary McLeod Bethune, a good friend of Holt’s, to teach at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, and eventually an offer to produce a revision, which she titled Singing Steel, in Chicago.
She returned to Rollins only once more to bring a group of local singers to perform in April for the women’s club before taking them to the Fifth National Folk Festival in St. Louis. But she never forgot the college and its faculty’s role in her career. When she published Moses, Man of Mountain in 1939, she dedicated it to Grover, who supported her work throughout her life. He followed her career, despaired at her setbacks in later years, and when he heard that she had died, attempted to discover her burial place. As a memorial, he encouraged the University of Florida Library to develop a Hurston collection by donating to it his correspondence with her.
Hurston herself offered a fitting epilogue for her relationship with Rollins shortly after Dust Tracks on a Road was published in 1942. In the book she mentioned the college and the faculty she remembered from the time they had helped resurrect her career. But she recognized that her book had not quite done justice to the time she spent there. She wrote to Hamilton Holt to acknowledge her debt to the college more fully: “You know, I had a lot more about Rollins College and Winter Park in the original script, but my publishers did not like it. I wanted to show more awareness of what had happened to me at Winter Park, and my gratitude toward several people there, as well as some in New York. But it was cut out. Now, I look like a hog under an acorn tree guggling without ever looking up to see where the acorns came from” (February 11, 1943, Hurston Papers).
1. About Mules and Men Grover noted, “Someone asked her, ‘Why drag in the men?’ Her quick answer was, ‘That’s what the mules wanted to know.’” (I).
2. The Rice Affair is reconstructed from material in Duberman’s study and the Rollins College Archives.
3. As Robert Hemenway points out, Hurston was unhappy with Holt’s guidelines: “She wrote to Mrs. Mason, ‘Tickets to the general public—except Negroes. I tried to have the space set aside, but find that there I come up against solid rock’” (185).
4. The description of the theater in the Winter Park Herald (January 26, 1933) suggests that it must have been a curious environment for Hurston’s work: “the interior is painted blue, the stage curtain is bright pink and is decorated with lambs, rabbits, ducks [and] modern flowers.”
5. Royal France’s memoirs offer a similar instance of one faculty member’s ironic description of the disapproval of his neighbors when France and his family socialized with Zora Hurston (1957, 75-76).
6. Hemenway’s excellent biography does not mention either All De Live Long Day or the second museum performance of From Sun to Sun.
Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. New York: Dutton, 1972.
France, Royal. My Native Grounds. New York: Cameron Associates, 1957.
Grover, Edwin Osgood. “The Story of Zora Neale Hurston, Author.” Typescript (n.d.). Rollins College Archives, Winter Park, FL.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois. 1977.
Holt, Hamilton. Correspondence. Rollins College Archives, Winter Park, Florida.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Correspondence. Zan Neale Hurston Papers. University of Florida Library, Gainesville.
—. Dust Tracks on a Road. Philadelphia: Lippincott. 1942.
—. Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1934.
—. Moses, Man on the Mountain. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1939.
—. Mules and Men. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1935.
“The Listening Post,” Winter Park Herald, January 26, 1933. 5.
Orlando Morning Sentinel, January 25, 1933, 5.
Rollins College Sandspur. November 16, 1932, I; February 8, 1933, 3; March 8, 1933, 3; January 10, 1934, I.
Traer, Will M. “Some Observations,” Winter Park Herald, February 2, 1933, 6.
Wunsch, Robert. Correspondence. Rollins College Archives. Winter Park, Florida.