A leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston is widely regarded as a premier architect of twentieth-century African-American literature. Best known for her seminal 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston’s mastery of folklore in the oral tradition of the rural African-American South, set her apart from her contemporaries. Having received her B.A. in Anthropology from Barnard College, Hurston was an astute observer of humanity. Her proclivity for social and cultural examination influenced the candid writing style that portrayed the broader, more encompassing depiction of black life and influenced writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou.
Exceptionally well-rounded, particularly for an African-American woman of her time, Hurston traveled throughout the Caribbean, Jamaica, Honduras, and Haiti where she immersed herself in anthropological research. Over the years, much has been circulated about the life of the esteemed literary artist, most of the information focuses on her upbringing in Eatonville, Fla. and influence at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. What is missing from the narrative is the later period of her life. Hurston spent the last two years of her life spent in Fort Pierce, Fla. and these years are often summed up as obscure, tragic and impoverished. Having visited the town where Hurston spent this time, I was delighted to discover that nothing could be further from the truth.
Hurston came to Florida’s coastal city at the request of C.E. Bolen, editor of the Fort Pierce Chronicle, who persuaded her to write a weekly column for the newspaper. She would soon reconnect with Clem C. Benton, an old family friend from her youth. Benton, now a practicing physician in the city, treated Hurston like family, allowing her to live rent free in a home that he owned in the epicenter of the black community. In addition to writing for the Fort Pierce Chronicle, Hurston picked up a job as an English teacher at a segregated black high school. Former student Arlena Benton recalls her first encounter with Hurston, “In 1958 when she first started teaching at Lincoln Park Academy, we (students) had no idea how important she was. We knew her as Ms. Hurston but nobody told us that she was a famous writer.”
Indian River State College professor and Zora Neale Hurston researcher Marvin Hobson notes that even as Hurston worked and mingled in Fort Pierce, her passion and priority were dedicated to completing her final novel, “Herod the Great.” “She was desperately trying to finish that book,” he says. “It’s evident when you look at the physical manuscript – five thick binders of work and research. She was working tirelessly on this project, revising it over and over in hopes of getting it picked up.”
Throughout her life, despite the circumstances, Hurston did what was necessary to position herself successfully. While it is true that she didn’t have a lot of money during her final years, her reputation and relationships were as good as currency within the close-knit black community of Fort Pierce. City commissioner Rufus Alexander recalls that the woman he knew as Ms. Hurston was far from impoverished. “Wealth and poverty were relative terms for us. At the time that Zora lived here, you didn’t need a lot of money to survive. She was rich because she had a community that cared for her every need.”
To commemorate the life and times of the world-renowned author, the city has dedicated the Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail which features eight notable landmarks chronicling her time there. Tour highlights include a drive-by to Lincoln Park Academy where Hurston was known by her students as an eccentric and colorful character and a walk through her modest home that is still maintained by the family of Dr. Clem C. Benton. Also included is a stop at the Zora Neale Hurston Branch Library and gravesite where her headstone, purchased by Alice Walker (famed author of “The Color Purple”), memorializes the trailblazer with writing that says, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.” The most significant part of this fascinating and educational tour is the fact that it is curated entirely by locals, most of whom knew Hurston personally. Their encounters with her as students, neighbors and friends offer a unique and intimate insight into the author’s passion and personality.
A trip to Fort Pierce, positioned on the Florida Atlantic coast, about 120 miles equidistant between family-friendly Orlando and tropical Miami, makes for the perfect road trip destination for the African-American art and literature enthusiast.
To read more about my time in Fort Pierce, be sure to check out my article, “Fort Pierce: Florida’s Cultural Heritage Destination.”
Photo credit: Ebony Flake