Traveling along the beautiful highways of Florida can be tranquil and serene, with the low hanging palm trees.
It’s a beautiful sight to see along the rural roads in some of the state’s small cities, but each road leads to either another road of new discoveries or a dead-end of dreams.
The Chicago Defender had an opportunity to visit and explore the small town of Fort Pierce, Florida – a quiet fisherman’s town within St. Lucie County, approximately 120 miles South of Orlando.
Fort Pierce is not your typical Floridian destination; it’s a quiet community with rich history that spans back to Spanish settlers during the early 19th Century. In the mid-1800s, many runaway slaves and Seminole Indians retreated to the area and laid down roots as a refuge.
In 1905, St. Lucie County was established out of the southern part of Brevard County with its home in Fort Pierce. As you travel through the town’s sleepy streets, some areas are timeless as vintage turn-of-the century homes still rest in the heart of Fort Pierce’s downtown.
If these roads could speak, they would reveal the rich history of the Deep South. Moreover, they would reveal the last years of its most notable and famous resident – author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.
The legend of Hurston is a most interesting story to examine. In fact, today her works are used as examples of getting a clearer understanding of a period that timelessly resonates with similarities to our social issues today.
Early Life and Career
Hurston was born January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama – a small town of 14 square miles in the Auburn area where her family eventually moved to Eatonville, Florida.
She grew up in the first incorporated Black township. Her life’s story has graced many publications, books, and plays along with academic conferences and annual festivals bearing her name.
Her famous published works include Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1928), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Tell My Horse (1938), along with hundreds of short essays, plays and featured articles for newspapers such as the Miami Herald, the Pittsburgh Courier and Fort Pierce’s only Black-operated newspaper, The Chronicle.
From Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), leading to her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), going on to publish Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), Hurston continued to write-up until her death in January 28, 1960.
A former student, Marjorie Harrell, recalls meeting Hurston at Lincoln Park Academy. “We would’ve probably gathered around her more, but to us, she was a weird lady. We didn’t call her that out loud because your neighbors would beat you on the way home and then your Momma would get you when you got home,” Harrell said.
“Just to have her and not understand who she was. I went to Hampton Institution, John Ready and to FAMU, where I completed my education. Neither one of those institutions told us about Zora Neale Hurston.
“So, I had to leave home, come back and happen upon the dedication of the library in order to find out about this woman who was my teacher. Since then I’ve read everything written about her.”
Harrell is currently writing a book, Zora: As We Knew Her. In her seventies now, she is gathering a few of her classmates that are still living to contribute.
A grandmother and one of the town elders remembers owner and publisher, C.E. Bolen, who invited Hurston to Fort Pierce to write for his newspaper.
As a young teenager, she remembers Bolen recruiting young people to help him report, file, deliver papers and drive him around town. “He would come to folk’s homes and say, ‘Hey boy, hey girl, come on, help me with this paper so I can keep it going!’ He didn’t give you no salary and you couldn’t say no.”
The Eccentric Author
Arlene and Margaret Benton, both sisters and natives of Fort Pierce, can recall their first encounter with the somewhat eccentric and intriguing author.
Arlene Benton, the eldest daughter of Dr. Clem C. Benton, was a young teacher starting out at the only Black high school in town, Lincoln Park Academy.
“My father and Zora were both from the Orlando area,” she said. “Their families knew each other. He introduced me to her at his office, but he told me later on at home that she was a famous writer.”
Hurston was invited one Sunday evening to the Benton’s home for dinner. At the time, she was working on what would be her last novel, Harold the Great. They found themselves at the dinner table, where Hurston’s work would be the centerpiece of the discussion for most of the evening.
“Dad would ask her, ‘Ms. Hurston, how do you start a book?
He was interested in writing his own book at the time. I was on staff with her at Lincoln Park Academy, but I was young. I really did enjoy talking to her during those Sunday dinners,” Benton remembers.
Although, the Benton family was familiar with Hurston’s profession, the rest of the town wasn’t aware that there was a woman whose entire life was based on breaking through barriers and carving out a historical place that would haunt all of them until this day.
After the death of her mother, Lucy Hurston at 14, young Zora worked various jobs. She had a hard time finishing high school and took on a job as maid for Gilbert & Sullivan, eventually singing.
In 1917, at age 26, she found herself in Baltimore securing a way to access free public education by lying about her age to finish high school. Shaving 10 years off of her age, Hurston went on to graduate from Barnard College in 1928 as the first African-American female to do so. Her collegiate schooling included Howard University—where she pledged Zeta Phi Beta.
The Harlem Renaissance
There are many stories that chronicle the author’s most successful period during the Harlem Renaissance, when acclaimed authors and the who’s who of Black arts and cultural ruled the literary scene.
Hurston often entertained and hosted frequently at her residence, keeping company with fellow writers including singer and actress Ethel Waters. Hurston became close with Langston Hughes. Together, the two writers would start a newspaper, Fire!, but they eventually fell out over creative differences.
Her bold and fiery personality never swayed from her convictions, creating critics and a handful of naysayers, including Hughes, along the way.
Hurston’s works reflected a realism to a world that many first generation northern Blacks wanted to forget as they were trying to integrate into mainstream society, but Hurston saw things in different way.
Growing up in one of the few all-Black towns, as a young adult, she often intermingled with Whites, sitting at the front of the bus, telling them her stories. She didn’t experience racism until she left and arrived in Jacksonville at 15.
The Barnard College graduate took this ideology and approach with her as she traveled the world, where she crossed color lines. Her confidence illuminated swag and a seductiveness that was noticed when she would enter the room.
That was one of the main things that stood out to the Fort Pierce town residents who had never seen anyone like Hurston, especially her students.
In 1958, she first started teaching at Lincoln Park Academy. Marjorie Harrell and her classmates were greeted by the author’s presence.
“My English language instructor, Mrs. Calhoun, was pregnant and on maternity leave and this lady came to substitute in her place,” says Harrell. “We didn’t know who she was, we just knew she was there to substitute. Nobody told us that she was famous, that she was a writer.”
Despite Hurston earning a Bachelor’s Degree from Barnard College and studying at Morgan College and Harvard University, she was unable to acquire her teacher’s certification in the state of Florida.
In 1959, she started to get sick and her demeanor rapidly changed – she wore big flowered dresses and big skirts. Harrell said there was an incident where the male students locked Hurston in the school closet as a prank.
“If you just laughed at a teacher, by the time school ended everyone would hear about it. Had we known who she was, we would’ve understood her dramatics. Here is somebody who could have given us Black American History,” Harrell said.
To the state education board, Hurston described Lincoln Park Academy students as the “worst” who carried knives and fought all of the time. But, this wasn’t the case at all.
The moral laws of the land in Fort Pierce were held up by a village including then school Dean Robert Jefferson, who was known to carry a leather strap as his method of discipline and rule.
“Our school motto was, ‘We do right because it’s right to do right,’” said former student, Attorney Margaret Benton.
The likelihood at that time of students carrying on in that manner was near zero, but Hurston felt this may have sped up the process of becoming certified to teach, which wasn’t to be.
Fort Pierce Legacy
Throughout the month of February, the county of St. Lucie, in partnership with Fort Pierce, celebrated Hurston along with another iconic legacy, the Highwaymen. The Highwaymen was an original group of 36 young African-American artists that was formed in the early 1960s by Alfred Hair.
These Fort Pierce teenagers studied painting from the famed artist and art teacher, A.E. “Bean” Backus – a White painter who captured the beautiful outdoor scenes of Florida’s nature.
Headed up by Hair, they sold their mass production of paintings up and along the highway to tourists and natives for as little as $20 a painting.
Over 50 years later, the Highwaymen is considered one of the most celebrated groups of Black painters that have carved out a place in American art history. They, too are recognized for their influence on the area’s historic blueprint, along with Hurston.
The town’s mayor, Linda Johnson, is a native who has lived in other places, including Chicago working in the private sector. She decided to return to her hometown in the early 1990s and has held public office for the past 25 years as the town’s mayor.
As you visit Fort Pierce, there is no doubt that Hurston has left her mark on the town, which once was divided by Avenue D – rarely integrating the Black residents with the White residents outside of servitude work.
The Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail takes one through the various landmarks – Zora Neale Hurston Library; the house that she lived in owned by the Benton family; Sarah’s Memorial Chapel; Lincoln Park Academy, and other Zora hangouts.
The most highly visited location is the Genesee Memorial Gardens, now the Garden of Heavenly Rest, renamed when author Alice Walker marked Hurston’s grave with a headstone at Ave. S and 17th Street.
The senior home where Hurston died still stands as a memorial where visitors can come see a recreation of the room she spent her last months in – from the old black typewriter, to pack of Camels that sit on the brown wooden desk, among other personal items that were saved when she died.
As you visit and listen to the stories of the town’s natives, you realize that Hurston has had a profound impact that has forced many to open their eyes to those that they may have found unusual and obscure.
She traveled the world as a renowned anthropologist, spending extensive time in Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean, and she was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a 10-year old.
In a time when there were no social media platforms to immediately use as a self-platform to dispel such falsehoods, the novelist returned to her Floridian roots.
She was ahead of her time and began to ruffle more feathers as she publicly spoke against integration on the decision of Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954. Hurston said, “The whole matter revolves around the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them? Thems my sentiments and I am sticking by them. Growth from within. Ethical and cultural desegregation. It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.”
Her childhood in Eatonville showed her that Black communities can vibrantly sustain themselves without the deconstruction of integration, especially when Blacks were mistreated in the company of whites.
Anthony Westbury, a former editor of the Fort Pierce/Port St. Lucie Tribune, describes her understanding best. “When you broke down segregation in the way that we broke it down in America, we destroyed some of the Black community in the process,” he says.
“We forced things to happen that Zora suggested needed to some of the steps as detrimental in some ways and we demonstrated this in Fort Pierce. We’re still recovering from that today.”
For those who have never heard of this award-winning novelist and journalist, the best modern day description of Zora Neale Hurston might come from Associate Professor at Indian River State, Marvin E. Hobson, who said, “She’s the Tupac of literature. She never dies; her work will live on.”