Zora Neale Hurston’s Hometown Legacy
Zora Neale Hurston, the most famous female writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was raised in the small town of Eatonville, FL, just outside of Orlando. It was one of the first black municipalities to incorporate in the 1880s and has remained a somewhat private town with a history of pride and protectiveness.
Writing for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), Hurston’s descriptions of Eatonville in the Florida travel guide put the town on the tourist map. References to the town and its residents also appeared in her books “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Of Mules and Men,” to the dismay of some who lived there and preferred their lives to remain out of the public eye.
Hurston was poor and her books out of print when she died in 1960, and Eatonville had all but forgotten her. The town had lost some of its cohesiveness after integration caused children to be bused to other areas for school. In the 1980s, county officials began plans to build a five-lane highway through the center of Eatonville, and concerned residents rallied to form the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. Around the same time Hurston’s writings and reputation were being revived by author Alice Walker, and the town began celebrating its ties to Hurston. The first Zora Festival was held in 1990, drawing a crowd of 10,000. Now an annual event, it supports this small town that had been on the verge of envelopment by neighboring Orlando. Some say Zora saved Eatonville, the community she once angered with her candor.
This in-depth video includes interviews with Hurston’s editor and others who remember her. It is the sixth in an interactive series by the New York Times about state landmarks in the American Guide Series of books, which was produced by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression and has become part of the canon of American travel writing.
Reporting: Damien Cave
Video: Diana Olivia Cave
Photography: Ruth Fremson