Zora’s Spirit and the Town it Saved
by D. Amari Jackson
“We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and, if necessary, bone by bone.” ― Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
Many a Zora Neale Hurston fan can retell the now legendary account of that magical day in 1973 when the late writer connected with Alice Walker from beyond the grave. Walker—at the time, a 29-year-old novelist and editor enchanted by the shreds of available information on the Harlem Renaissance writer—journeyed to the latter’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida, a place popularized by Hurston’s writings as the oldest Black-incorporated municipality in the United States. Upon asking around about Hurston’s place of rest, Walker ultimately located the Garden of Heavenly Rest an hour away in Fort Pierce and began combing through overgrown, snake-infested grass in search of an unmarked grave near the cemetery’s center. Initially unsuccessful, she grew frustrated and began calling Hurston’s name. What happened next is depicted in Walker’s 1975 article, “Looking for Zora”, originally published in Ms. magazine:
“Zora!’ Then I start fussing with her. ‘I hope you don’t think I’m going to stand out here all day, with these snakes watching me and these ants having a field day. In fact, I’m going to call you just one or two more times… Zora!’ And my foot sinks into a hole. I look down. I am standing in a sunken rectangle that is about six feet long and about three or four feet wide.”
The rest is now popular history with Walker placing a headstone at the gravesite and then writing about it; with Robert Hemenway’s 1977 biography of Hurston; and with the ultimate reprinting of her five novels and 50 short stories, plays, and essays. Over time, Hurston’s posthumous star—despite dying poor, unacknowledged, and isolated from family and friends—would rise to heights competing with and, perhaps, surpassing that of the legendary Walker.
But what is less known is how, in the aftermath of Walker’s rediscovery of Hurston, a critical series of local efforts were initiated in Eatonville to save the town Zora made famous while simultaneously preserving her literary legacy.
“I’m just going to put it to you plain, if Alice Walker had not found Zora Neale Hurston’s grave, then Zora Neale Hurston would not have been able to save the town of Eatonville,” proclaims N.Y. Nathiri, director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.) and a longtime Eatonville resident. Nathiri’s family was instrumental in building the town of Eatonville and, more recently, founding the P.E.C. This month, beginning with Hurston’s 130th birthday on January 7, the P.E.C. is hosting the 32nd Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities with monthlong events taking place in Eatonville, throughout surrounding Orange County, and online.
“The prominence of the resurrection of Zora Neale Hurston as a writer, as a folklorist and anthropologist, is absolutely essential to the story of what is happening to Eatonville,” continues Nathiri, touting the P.E.C. vision of establishing Eatonville as “an internationally recognized cultural heritage and tourism destination for the arts and culture throughout the African diaspora with a special emphasis on the multi-disciplines, as represented in the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston.” Along with the popular annual ZoraFest!, the nonprofit organization manages the town’s Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts.
For over three decades, the P.E.C. has battled to promote and maintain the historic, intertwined legacies of Hurston and Eatonville in the face of largescale development efforts that have threatened the town’s very existence. “There’s always been, within Eatonville, a civic pride, as we stand on other people’s shoulders,” says Nathiri, noting how citizens have been “very politically active around preserving the community.” They have also challenged the widescale ignorance of elected officials at the county and state level as many leaders, she reports, “had never heard of Zora Neale Hurston and did not know anything about the historic significance of Eatonville.”
It is a history the tiny town’s residents know all too well. They came from miles away, from Georgia, Alabama, and other parts of the state, seeking work, the formerly enslaved, officially “free,” whatever free meant. They had endured the hell that was slavery and yet, given the bitter southern white contempt for their new legal status and an 1877 political compromise that removed the federal troops protecting them from the South, hell had returned with a vengeance. Still, despite being violated and brutalized with impunity by bands of white supremacists, both roving and elected, these laborers, farmers, and builders pushed forward in their seemingly impossible quest to claim something of value, something to call their own.
“Part of it is an escape from the harsh realities of life under Jim Crow,” explains Dr. Scot French, a professor and digital public historian at the University of Central Florida specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and Southern history. “It’s hard to imagine coming South to escape Jim Crow, but this was the southern frontier and this part of Florida had not been developed. There were new towns being built, planned towns, planned communities springing up in Central Florida and they were being funded by, in many cases, white Northerners they called ‘snowbirds,’ or people who came South to escape the harsh winter.” The way they funded these, continues French, was through the development of citrus groves, a “source of employment for African Americans. So they were coming to Florida to get employment in the railroads and citrus groves and in the industries that supported the towns that were springing up.”
As some arrived in unincorporated Lake Maitland, Florida in search of work in the region’s bountiful citrus groves, they had ulterior motives. Somewhere in the mid to late 1870s, as French reported in the Spring 2018 version of Winter Park Magazine, one Joseph E. Clark lamented how he and two other African Americans attempted to buy land “for the purpose of establishing a colony for colored people” but “so great was the prejudice” against the Negro that “no one would sell them land for such a purpose.”
A decade later on August 15, 1887, upon acquiring 112 acres from and with the help of northern white sympathizers Lewis Lawrence and Josiah Eaton, Clark and his peers held elections in the first town to be established, governed, and incorporated by African American citizens in the nation. It was named Eatonville, in honor of Eaton.
In 1889, the town leadership issued a call to grow their new town and attract others seeking refuge from the racial hostilities and violence of the day. That year, an ad ran on the front page of The Eatonville Speaker that read, “Colored people of the United States: solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by Negroes.” It further promoted Eatonville as “an incorporated city of two and three hundred population with a Mayor, Board of Aldermen, and all the necessary adjuncts of a full-fledged city, [with] not a white family in the whole city!”
Unfortunately, such promotion of Eatonville as an emerging all-Black utopia was tempered by the brutal political and racial realities of the country surrounding it. In the same issue of The Eatonville Speaker advertising these attractive and homogenous aspects of the new city, an adjacent article recounted a first-person account of an attempted lynching in the nearby city of Sanford.
Still, Eatonville flourished as its proud citizens worked collectively to build houses, churches, schools, municipal buildings, cemeteries, and social centers. Families used the region’s local lakes to fish, swim, and boat while consuming these waters for irrigation, cooking, and bathing. Men worked year-round in the area’s citrus groves and on the railways that crawled across the surrounding region. In 1899, two students of the Tuskegee Institute established a school which would subsequently become the prestigious Robert Hungerford Industrial School, named for the deceased son of a northern philanthropist who’d donated land for its expansion into a 340-acre complex. Eatonville would continue to prosper well into the 20th century with its self-sustaining economy and governance, its vibrant community life, its near-nonexistent crime rate, and its well-educated youth.
One of these bright youth would later, in her 1942 autobiographical Dust Tracks on a Road, proclaim she “was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black back-side of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town—charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” Though officially born in Alabama, Zora Neale Hurston was very much a product of Eatonville, being a toddler when her family relocated to the promising new city in the mid-1890s. Hurston grew up on a five-acre farm in an eight-room house built by her father, a minister who also served as mayor, with an abundance of playmates, social gatherings, schooling, and homegrown food.
There was also an abundance of stories to be told given the long and winding path of the local grapevine and its commonly recognized hub, Joe Clark’s store. There, Hurston was mesmerized by animated discussions between Eatonville locals, chock full of town saviors and villains, of cheating spouses and forbidden loves, of Sunday worshippers and weekday sinners, of passionate youngsters and insatiable dreamers. To Hurston, her hometown was an ever-ready source for inspiration and material, influencing both her writing and outlook on life. That said, even with Eatonville’s unique culture and characteristics, Hurston’s perspective was, undoubtedly, her own. “Often I was in some lonesome wilderness, suffering strange things and agonies while other children in the same yard played without a care,” penned Hurston, in Dust Tracks. “I asked myself why me? Why? Why? A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me.”
Upon her mother’s 1904 death—the one person who best understood her child’s unique perspective—and her father’s second marriage, Hurston was sent away by her father and stepmother to attend boarding school in Jacksonville where racism became a part of the teen’s daily life. Upon returning home, Hurston got into a violent fight with her stepmother and left the town once more. This time, Hurston would spend many years working odd jobs, attending college and graduate school, studying and travelling as an anthropologist, and excelling as a writer before spending any significant time back in Eatonville.
Even when she did years later, after becoming a nationally acclaimed author, her relationship with her hometown was, perhaps, as complex as it had been with her own family. Just as Hurston had viewed Eatonville as a rich source to mine for her plots, settings, and characters, some of the town’s residents likely recognized themselves in her often less-than-flattering depictions as well. Nonetheless, her attachment to her hometown remained, commonly staying with friends when returning. “She didn’t feel disconnected at all from her town,” insists French, suggesting any estrangement may have been more related to her earlier family situation. The historian clarifies that Hurston “writes very affectionately” about her hometown, and that “most of her writings are based in her memories of Eatonville.”
In 1955, upon the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Hurston, who then worked in nearby Fort Pierce as a schoolteacher, publicly criticized the ruling with a sharp editorial in the Orlando Sentinel. Her sentiment pitted her against the prevailing pro-integration, civil rights narrative of the day.
“If there are not adequate Negro schools in Florida, and there is some residual, some inherent and unchangeable quality in white schools, impossible to duplicate anywhere else, then I am the first to insist that Negro children of Florida be allowed to share this boon. But if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is nothing different except the presence of white people. For this reason, I regard the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court as insulting rather than honoring my race. Since the days of the never-to-be-sufficiently deplored Reconstruction, there has been current the belief that there is no greater delight to Negroes than physical association with whites.”
Such sentiment was as much steeped in her upbringing in a self-sufficient, all-Black town as it was a function of the bold and independent-minded critical thinker that Hurston was. She remained this way to the end, which came five years later, on January 28, 1960, at St. Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce. On welfare and largely unacknowledged at the time of her death, the local community raised funds for her casket and funeral. And things would have ended that way if not for that remarkable day in 1973 when the underappreciated writer, deceased for 13 years, connected with the much alive and curious Alice Walker from beyond the grave.
But while Walker lit the fire, others on the local level have since stepped in to maintain the flames, saving their beloved Eatonville in the process. In the 1980s, a conservative white Board of Commissioners dominated Orange County affairs. The town of 2000 had already experienced pressure from the county several times prior, including the contentious 1967 county-led conversion of the town’s historic Hungerford High into a technical school; and the unsuccessful 1970s push by the county to turn Hungerford Elementary into a special needs facility, a decision that would have seen Eatonville’s youth bussed to schools in neighboring communities. Now, with the stated goal of minimizing traffic congestion in the region, the county proposed a widening of two-lane Kennedy Boulevard in Eatonville, a measure that would have largely ended the historic town as its citizens had known it. On November 23, 1987, the same year as the town’s centennial and despite opposition by its representatives, five county commissioners unanimously passed the road widening measure and targeted April 1989 for the start of construction. Months later, the P.E.C. was formed. “We organized originally in response to a community-busting highway project that Orange County had passed,” confirms Nathiri, noting “it was going to five-lane the two-lane roadway that runs straight through Eatonville. So that would have really destroyed the town and its historic significance.”
However, while construction was underway, a second series of mystical events involving the late Hurston and the intuitive Walker would serve to unseal the historic town’s fate. By 1990, the 1985 film adaptation of The Color Purple, based on Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, had enjoyed five years of international success both in theaters and on video. Consistently, Walker and her book enjoyed a global spotlight, one she carried with her upon returning to Eatonville in January 1990 to speak at the first Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts, organized by the P.E.C.
“Eatonville is only a community of about 2000 people at this time, maybe 2,500,” recalls Nathiri. “So when we do the festival, literally 10,000 people descend on Eatonville. So everybody in Orange County pays attention because not only does Alice Walker come, but Ruby Dee comes, and all of the highest names in arts and culture associated with Zora Neale Hurston, they all come to Eatonville.”
After several more years of local activism, a wildly successful annual festival, and steadily increasing international interest in Hurston and her hometown, Orange County backed away from its road proposal. The triumph over the highway project further embellished the soaring civic pride and unique legacy of a small southern Black town anchored by its original vision and graced by an indelible spirit. In 1998, Eatonville joined the national historic registry. In 2006, a new library was opened on a repaved Kennedy Boulevard at what would become Zora Neale Hurston Square. And despite the current global crisis—and like its indomitable namesake—the festival will go on this month, both in person and online.
“Zora Neale Hurston was a different spirit,” says Nathiri, promoting not only Hurston’s “literary genius” but her skill as a trained anthropologist. “Because she documented it, we know about the folklore and the culture of the Black people in the South and, specifically, Eatonville.”
Consistently, the longtime resident fully embraces the intricate, inseparable nature of the iconic writer, her relentless spirit, and the beloved hometown she saved.
“Eatonville is a part of her legacy, and people know about Eatonville, frankly, because Zora Neale Hurston included it in so much of her material,” acknowledges Nathiri.
“So, when I say it’s all in bed together, that’s what we’re talking about.”