Today in History

Today in History: January 7

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston, 1901-1960,
[between 1935 and 1943(?)].
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her.

Zora Neale Hurston,
Their Eyes Were Watching God,
chapter 9.

Novelist, folklorist, dramatist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in the United States. The dialects, customs, and folklore of the people of Eatonville and of rural Florida informed Hurston's work throughout her career.

Long view of a beanfield
Picking Beans in the "Muck."
Belle Glade, Florida,
Arthur Rothstein, photographer, January, 1937.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA/OWI , 1935-1945

"We goin' on de muck."
"Whut's de muck, and where is it at?"
"Oh down in de Everglades round Clewiston and Belle Glade where dey raise all dat cane and string-beans and tomatuhs. Folks don't do nothin' down dere but make money and fun and foolishness. We must go dere."

Zora Neale Hurston,
Their Eyes Were Watching God,
chapter 13.

Hurston studied at Morgan Academy, the preparatory school of Morgan College, then at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She won a scholarship to Barnard College (external link) where she studied anthropology with Franz Boas and earned her bachelor of arts degree while participating in the flourishing Harlem Renaissance. She collected folklore and made recordings in Florida and other areas of the South in the late 1920s. During the Depression, she helped Alan Lomax, the son of pioneer folksong collector John Avery Lomax, document the folk music of Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. Later, she worked with the Federal Writer's Project interviewing Floridians about their lives and culture and recording and collecting the diverse folk songs of her native state—a project she described as "an opportunity to observe the wombs of folk culture still heavy with life."

People of Eatonville, Florida, photographed during the 1935 Lomax, Hurston, Barnicle expedition.
Lomax Southern States Recording Trip, 1939

Man seated, holding hat
Man Seated, Facing Right, Holding Hat

African American child standing near a church
African American Child Singer for Singing Games

Rev. Haynes, half-length portrait
Rev. Haynes, Half-length Portrait

Woman seated in rocking chair
Woman Seated in Rocking Chair

Her ethnographic work also took her beyond the United States. She traveled the Caribbean— to Haiti and Jamaica to study folklore and customs—and to Honduras to study black communities. Hurston assembled and published the information she gathered on Haitian and Jamaican voodoo in her book Tell My Horse (1938). Even though her pursuits led her many places, she always returned to Florida. She invoked the spirit and voice of her people by seamlessly weaving the songs, stories, and other information she collected in her studies into her fiction.

"Dat mule uh yourn, Matt. You better go see 'bout him. He's bad off."
"Where 'bouts? Did he wade in de lake and uh alligator ketch him?"
"Worser'n dat. De womenfolks got yo' mule. When Ah come round de lake 'bout noontime mah wife and some ohters had 'im flat on de ground usin' his sides fuh uh wash board…
Yeah, Matt, dat mule so skinny till de women is usin' his rib bones fuh uh rub-board, and hangin' things out on his hock-bones tuh dry."

Zora Neale Hurston,
Their Eyes Were Watching God,
chapter 6.

Zora Neale Hurston's wide-ranging interests as well as economic need led her to take an astounding variety of positions. She had short tenures as a manicurist, a librarian, a dramatic coach with the The New Deal Stage Selections from the Federal Theatre Project 1935-1939, a story consultant at Paramount Pictures, a maid, and a teacher.

In 1959, after suffering a stroke, Hurston was forced to enter a welfare home where she died in 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave and her work languished in relative obscurity until 1975, when Alice Walker published the article "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in Ms. (external link) magazine. In the article, Walker recounts her experiences of searching for, finding, and marking Hurston's grave.

"Georgia Skin,"
Zora Neale Hurston
June 18, 1939.
Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections

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"Shove It Over,"
Zora Neale Hurston
June 18, 1939.
Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections

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Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), but she also published folklore collections, the autobiography Dust Tracks On a Road (1942), and plays. In 1997, an historian at the Library of Congress and a former staffer/scholar discovered ten unpublished Hurston plays which she had initially deposited in the library for copyright protection. Among the plays are sketches, full-length comedies and dramas, and a libretto. The works incorporate the folk songs and dances that figure prominently in Hurston's fiction. Though her play The Great Day had been produced on Broadway, prior to this discovery Hurston had been perceived as a novelist who had written plays; when, in fact, she clearly invested a great deal of her creativity in these works. Now scholars understand that the scope of her accomplishments is even greater than previously understood.

People of Eatonville, Florida, photographed during the 1935 Lomax, Hurston, Barnicle expedition.
Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip

African American Man, Sitting Outdoors
African American Man, Sitting Outdoors

African American children playing singing games
African American Children Playing Singing Games

Woman seated in porch swing
Woman Seated in Porch Swing

Man seated holding guitar
Man Seated Holding Guitar

She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes!

Zora Neale Hurston,
Their Eyes Were Watching God,
chapter 20.

Marian Anderson

Portrait of Marian Anderson singing
Marian Anderson Singing,
January 14, 1940.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964

Famed contralto Marian Anderson made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera. She was the first African American to perform with the company.

Anderson was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897 and began her musical training at the age of six with the Union Baptist Church choir. Rejected by a local music school because of her race, Anderson had private voice lessons funded by her family, church, and friends. She toured the United States extensively, appearing in concerts and recitals, and, in 1925, won first prize in the New York Philharmonic (external link) voice contest. The contest yielded a number of performance dates, but it was not until she traveled to Europe that she gained major recognition.

Anderson encountered racial prejudice throughout her career, but the most famous incident of discrimination took place in 1939 when she was barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Several years earlier, the DAR responded to protests over mixed seating during performances of black artists by instituting a policy banning African-American artists from performing at the hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the most prominent member to resign from the organization in protest. At the invitation of the federal government, Anderson performed before an audience of approximately 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939.

Portrait of Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson,
January 14, 1940.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964

The action of the DAR reflected the racial prejudices prevalent in the period. Prior to the abolition of legalized segregation in the 1950s, African Americans were simply barred from attending cultural events in many parts of the country. In January 1939, a writer employed by the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers' Project mentioned Anderson to Katy Brumby, an African-American woman she was interviewing in Birmingham, Alabama. "We were listening, one day, to Marian Anderson…singing over the radio," the writer reported in "The Story of Katy Brumby," an American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 interview. "After the rich…voice had stopped, I said I'd heard she was coming to Birmingham for a concert in the Spring." "I don't guess they'll let us hear it," Brumby replied.

Marian Anderson retired from singing in 1965 after an extended farewell tour. Among the honors and rewards she received for her incomparable voice and efforts towards breaking the color barrier for African-American performers was the U.S. National Arts Medal, awarded to her in 1986. Anderson died in 1993 at the age of ninety-six.