The Harlem Renaissance author grew up in the all-black community founded in 1887 and set ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ in its borders. Each year the town celebrates her life and legacy.
Annie Peters, 91, has a vivid memory from her childhood of helping Zora Neale Hurston wash dishes.
Eatonville‘s paved streets and sidewalks were little more than dirt roads and paths when Peters was about 10. She would leave school in the afternoon and head for Hurston’s house. Hurston, then a burgeoning writer visiting the town now and then, loved children, and Peters joined a throng who played and mingled in her yard.
Peters, who still drives and runs a beauty salon from her house, is among a dwindling number of Eatonville’s older residents who can share firsthand accounts about Hurston, the author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
“Most of them are all gone; it’s a great loss,” Peters said. “Then really all they can do is read about her.”
Hurston’s adopted hometown celebrates her life and legacy every January with the Zora! Festival. Eatonville, a few miles north of Orlando, Fla., was to Zora Neale Hurston what Chicago was to Saul Bellow or London to Charles Dickens. Hurston later described her muse as “the city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail-house.”
Hurston, who died in 1960 at age 69, was one of the authors of the Harlem Renaissance, famed for her short stories, novels and her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.”
Hurston’s family moved to the town from Alabama in the 1890s when she was a toddler. Though Hurston left Eatonville in her teens, returning for periodic visits through the years, the place’s character and characters inspired her and informed much of her work. To the displeasure of some, she sometimes used real names in texts.
“Eatonville is in her, because she was always writing about it,” said Valerie Boyd of Atlanta, author of “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.”
Eatonville, a town of about 2,700, is rich in black history. It was established in 1887 as one of the first incorporated black towns formed after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is set in Eatonville and tells the story of a young woman, Janie Crawford, and her journey of self-discovery. A forward to the acclaimed book noted, “One white reviewer in 1937 praised the novel in the Saturday Review as a ‘rich and racy love story, if somewhat awkward,’ but had difficulty believing that such a town as Eatonville, ‘inhabited and governed entirely by Negroes’ could be real.”
“Eatonville was such a unique place because it was an all-black community,” Boyd said. “For her, it was a place where she was really shielded from racism, and it really made her who she was in a lot of ways. It was a place where she spent her formative years. So it’s this huge influence.”
But there are few left who remember the Eatonville that influenced Hurston.
When Boyd started to research her book in the late 1990s, she wanted to first finish all of the archival legwork before taking any trips. But she soon realized that many of the people who had Hurston tales to tell might not be around much longer.
“I had to shift my approach to the research in order to acknowledge the fact that time was marching on,” Boyd said.
N.Y. Nathiri, a main organizer of the event expected to bring thousands of visitors to Eatonville this weekend, said part of the aim is to help the community remember Hurston.
“If you don’t tell the story, if you don’t repeat the story, then you lose the memory,” Nathiri said. “So what happens at the festival, this is like a community memory.”
The story is a rich one. Hurston was a traveler, living in New York City, flourishing in the Harlem of the 1920s, researching voodoo rituals in Haiti, exploring Florida in the late 1930s to compile reports for the federal Works Progress Administration.
Her on-again, off-again presence in Eatonville contrasts with her last years in Fort Pierce, about 100 miles south on Florida’s east coast. There, she worked as a teacher and after her death was buried in an unmarked grave. Author Alice Walker later found and marked the grave and is credited with sparking a Hurston revival. Fort Pierce also embraces Hurston with an annual festival.
Hurston’s Eatonville visits stick in the mind of Malinda Crooms, 82. Her father was a former mayor, and Hurston would visit him and sometimes play croquet in a relative’s backyard.
Crooms knows that books preserve Hurston’s name, but living history is another matter.
“If they leave, then who is going to talk about her?” she said. “That’s all well and good — books — but there should be somebody who can speak a word of encouragement.”
// Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel