Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, to John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a former schoolteacher. Hurston was the fifth of eight children, and while she was still a toddler, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first all-Black incorporated town in the United States, where John Hurston served several terms as mayor. In 1917, Hurston enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore, where she completed her high school education.
Three years later, she enrolled at Howard University and began her writing career. She took classes there intermittently for several years and eventually earned an associate’s degree. The university’s literary magazine published her first story in 1921. In 1925, she moved to New York and became a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. A year later, she, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman organized the journal Fire!!, considered one of the defining publications of the era. Meanwhile, she enrolled in Barnard College and studied anthropology with arguably the most influential anthropologist of the twentieth century, Franz Boas. Hurston’s life in Eatonville and her extensive anthropological research on rural Black folklore greatly influenced her writing.
Throughout the 1930s, Hurston continued to write both fiction and anthropological works, including Mules and Men, which documented Black folklore. Her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937, after the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, and during the Great Depression. Hurston has been characterized as relatively conservative, and libertarian. The influential and highly political black novelist Richard Wright, then an ardent Communist, wrote a scathing review of Their Eyes Were Watching God upon its publication, claiming that it was not “serious fiction” and that it “carries no theme, no message, no thought.” Nevertheless, Hurston won a Guggenheim Fellowship that same year.
Despite her early success, Hurston fell into obscurity for a number of years. By the late 1940s, she began to have increasing difficulty getting her work published. By the early 1950s, she was forced to work as a maid. In the 1960s, after her death, the counterculture revolution continued to show disdain for any literature that was not overtly political, and Zora Neale Hurston’s writing was further ignored.
A stroke in the late 1950s forced Hurston to enter a welfare home in Florida. After she died penniless on January 28, 1960, she was buried in an unmarked grave.
Alice Walker, another prominent African-American writer, rediscovered her work in the late 1960s. Due in large part to an essay Walker later wrote for Ms. Magazine, Zora Neale Hurston is now often viewed as the first in a succession of great American black women writers that includes Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor.