Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama, but grew up as a child in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated town in Florida founded by African-Americans. Now widely recognized for her prolific writing, as a trained folklorist, she wrote studies of southern African-American cultural practices recorded in Mules and Men and cultural practices around voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica in Tell My Horse. She published an autobiography in 1942. As a fiction writer, she published several novels such as Their Eyes Were Watching God and also wrote plays. During her lifetime, she traveled extensively and lived in a variety of locations.
While many cities from Eatonville and Fort Pierce to St. Augustine and New York City have promoted and honored their connections to this prolific writer, locally she’s not as widely known and celebrated as she should given her strong ties to the city. Initially relocating to Jacksonville after the death of her mother, Zora grew, lived, worked, played and loved in Florida’s largest city throughout her lifetime. With this in mind, here’s six sites in Jacksonville you probably did not know also happen to be associated with Zora Neale Hurston’s time in the city.
1. John Cornelius Hurston Residence 1473 Evergreen Avenue (formerly 1663 Evergreen Avenue)
1473 Evergreen Avenue was once the residence of John Cornelius Hurston, Jr. John, Zora’s older brother, came to Jacksonville after a fallout with their father around 1908. He quickly worked his way up to being a manager at Charles Anderson’s Fish & Osyter House on Florida Avenue, moving to this Eastside residence around 1911. In 1914, Zora moved into this house with John and his wife, Blanche. Here’s an interesting look into her life at this time:
Soon, she fled. By 1914, Zora was back in Jacksonville, living with her brother John Cornelius and his wife, Blanche, at 1663 Evergreen Avenue. That year she was listed, along with the couple, in the directory of Bethel Baptist Institutional Church - the same church at which the Florida Baptist Academy, her former school, had been founded. Zora had journeyed to Jacksonville not just to elude Bob’s authority but also with the hope of returning to the academy and finishing high school.
This was not to be. Yet what happened next is the most mysterious gap in the narrative of Hurston’s life.
From the time she was a little girl, dogged by clairvoyant visions of her future, Zora knew that (in her words) “a house, a shot-gun built house that needed a new coat of white paint, held torture for me, but I must go. I saw deep love betrayed, but I must feel and know it. There was no turning back.
Source: Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd
2. Bethel Institutional Baptist Church 215 Bethel Baptist Street
During Zora’s teenage years, she resided in Jacksonville with her brother John C. Hurston, Jr and his wife Blanche. During this time, the family were members of the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church were John and Blanche served as deacon and deaconess. Completed in 1904 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, the Greek Revival and Romanesque Revival edifice is one of the few remaining buildings in the lost African-American neighborhood of Hansontown.
3. Clara White Mission 613 West Ashley Street
In 1938, Zora Neale Hurston came back to Jacksonville to work as the lead folklorist and contributor to the Florida division of the Works Progess Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). At the height of Jim Crow, African-America FWP contributors were not allowed to work in the FWP’s downtown headquarters. As such, the African-American office was located inside of LaVilla’s Clara White Mission. Still standing at 613 West Ashley Street, here Zora arranged recording sessions featuring herself and a variety of African-American residents telling stories, singing or chanting traditional music for preservation.
The voice of Zora Neale Hurston describing and performing the song “Uncle Bud” at LaVilla’s Clara White Mission.