Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942


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A Florida Treasure Hunt

Mark of Zora

In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld a policy of strict racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, which was not overturned until Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. Blacks and whites could not even drink out of the same water fountain in the South of the 1930s while the "Jim Crow" laws were in effect. It was, therefore, a rare and exciting event when one day in 1938 the director of the Florida project, Dr. Carita Doggett Corse, called the editorial staff into her office and announced:

"Zora Neale Hurston, the Florida Negro novelist, has signed onto the project and will soon be paying us a visit. Zora has been fêted by New York literary circles, and is given to putting on certain airs, including the smoking of cigarettes in the presence of white people. So we must all make allowances for Zora."

So Zora came, and Zora smoked, and we made "allowances" . . . .

Zora Neale Hurston
enlarge image icon  Zora Neale Hurston smoking, Cross City turpentine camp, ca. 1939. Photograph by Stetson Kennedy, Stetson Kennedy Papers, reproduced with permission. Digital restoration by Ivy Bigbee.

Although she already had two books to her credit, Zora had taken the Pauper's Oath with alacrity, and — like me — she had been assigned the title of "Junior Interviewer," but with pay of only $35.50 every two weeks, since according to the WPA wage scale it cost $4.00 per month less to live in Zora's all-black hometown of Eatonville than it did in Jacksonville, where our headquarters was located.

Three years earlier (in 1935), Zora had taken folk musicologist Alan Lomax, the son of pioneer folksong collector John Lomax, on a Florida recording expedition which began in Eatonville.1 The 1930s was a time of strict segregation in the American South. It would have been extremely dangerous for a black woman and a white man to be seen traveling together. To avoid complications with drive-through whites, Zora painted Alan's face and hands black. "In the field Zora was absolutely magnificent!" Alan recalled in a chat with me a half century later.

Although I was nominally Zora's boss, I didn't see much of her except on field trips. Like rather many of our rural field workers, she worked out of her home and submitted material by mail. Sometimes weeks went by without a word from her.

"Anybody heard from Zora?" Dr. Corse would ask her editors. When no one replied, she would look at me and say, "Better write her a letter, and jog her up!"

I would do as directed, and by return mail we would receive a thick manila envelope postmarked "Eatonville" — the "mark of Zora," I called it — stuffed with the most fabulous folk treasure imaginable. We took her "potlikker" and sprinkled it liberally for seasoning all through the Florida Guide.2

Zora's track record enabled her to wangle the Library of Congress recording machine as a loan to the Florida project. Our first stop with the machine was the Clara White Mission, a soup kitchen in Jacksonville's black ghetto, where the "Negro Unit" of our project was housed.

The singing of spirituals was a prerequisite to being served; the chorus of the first one we recorded was:

"Lord, I'm runnin'.
Tryin' to make a hundred;
Ninety-nine and a half won't do!"

When I pushed the playback button after the first stanza (to make sure the recorder was recording, but also as an infallible means of turning the most shy into ham actors), Eartha White, founder of the mission named for her mother, commanded: "Hold it right there! I want to offer up a little prayer."

What she prayed was: "Dear Lord, this is Eartha White talkin' to you again . . . . I just want to thank you for giving mankind the intelligence to make such a marvelous machine, and a President like Franklin D. Roosevelt who cares about preserving the songs people sing."

It being unthinkable in those days for white and black (much less if they were also male/female) to travel together, Dr. Corse hit upon the scheme of sending Zora ahead as an advance scout to seek and find people with folksong repertoires; I would follow with the machine and staff photographer Robert Cook. There being virtually no overnight accommodations for blacks, Zora frequently had to sleep in her Chevy.

One such recording expedition took us to a large turpentine camp near Cross City, to which we had gained access by telling the (heavily armed) owners we were looking for songs. We set up a night-time recording session around a campfire. In between songs, I said to the "hands," "Don't you know they can't make you work against your will?"

"They do do it," was the answer.

"Then why don't you leave and get out of it?"

"The onliest way out is to die out. If you tries to leave, they will kill you, and you will have to die, because they got peoples to bury you out in them woods."

At this point several young men jumped up and disappeared into the underbrush — to serve as sentries in case one of the white woodsriders were to show up.

Sure enough, after a while one of the sentries rushed into the firelight urgently whispering, "Here come the Man! Sing somethin', quick!"

1. John A. Lomax (1867-1948) served as honorary consultant and curator of the Archive of American Folk-Song, Library of Congress, from 1934 to 1942. He served as advisor on folklore collecting for both the Historical Records Survey and the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-38. His son Alan Lomax became the Archive's first paid employee, as Assistant in Charge, in 1937. Alan Lomax left the Library of Congress for the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942. (Return to Text)

2. Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Florida, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, American Guide Series. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939). (Return to Text)