It is hard to imagine a more fascinating figure than Zora Neale Hurston. She's best known today as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel on many high school reading lists beloved by readers for, among other things, its lively, lusty and independent protagonist, Janie, a woman not unlike Hurston herself. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891, but when she was a small child her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town where her father became mayor and minister of the large Macedonia Missionary Baptist church. After her mother's death, her father and stepmother sent Zora to a boarding school in nearby Jacksonville but they soon stopped paying her tuition. So, in her mid- teens, Zora began a life of moving around, seeking opportunity, and fending for herself.
Insatiably curious and unfailingly resourceful, Zora worked a series of jobs, was often out of money, but managed to attend a string of good schools. She graduated from the High School of Morgan State University in Baltimore (being by then beyond high school age, she may have mis-represented her age in order to qualify there for free tuition), and went on to Howard University where she joined the newly formed Zeta Phi Beta sorority and was a co-founder of the school's student newspaper. There she met Alain Locke who had been the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship and who was becoming a leader among African American writers and intellectuals. Writing for Howard University publications, she caught the attention of Charles S. Johnson (later a director of the Rosenwald Fund) who was then editing Opportunity, a magazine funded by the National Urban League focused on reflecting African American experience. A trustee of Barnard College of Columbia University in New York, Annie Nathan Meyer, noticed her writing and in 1925 offered her a scholarship. When she graduated in 1928, the 37 year old Zora was the only African American student that Barnard had ever had. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston wrote of this experience with her usual straightforward irreverence, "The Social Register crowd...soon took me up and I became Barnard's sacred black cow."
At Barnard, studying under the internationally known scholar Franz Boas, Hurston fell in love with the then relatively new academic field of anthropology. In the spring of 1927 he arranged for her to travel to Florida and Alabama where, among other work, she conducted interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the only remaining survivor of the last ship that brought Africans to America as slaves, an account recently published as Barracoun. Zora was fascinated by the black people and Southern folkways that she had grown up with. She was intrigued that this had become an area of academic study and literary interest.
By the time she came to the attention of the Rosenwald Fund fellowship program in the fall of 1934, Hurston had been married to and divorced from Herbert Sheen, a jazz musician, and had become friendly with many figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance -- the explosion of artistic expression centered in New York in the 1920s and 30s. She had done anthropological research, written stories, plays and scholarly articles for a variety of publications, produced a musical based on African American musical traditions and been proposed for a possible position teaching drama at Fisk University. In the fall of 1934 Katherine Dunham, a dancer and young anthropologist met her in Chicago and -- decades later -- remembered being taken aback by her beauty, charm and self-confidence. The following year a young Alan Lomax, just beginning his career as a musicologist, would describe her as having "a temperament as big as a house."
It was after seeing a performance of Singing Steel, the musical she produced, that Zora was contacted by representatives of the Rosenwald Fund and invited to apply for a fellowship. In December of 1934 she received word that she had was being granted a two year fellowship that would enable her to pursue a doctorate in anthropology at Columbia, following a program that Franz Boas had agreed to supervise.
But six weeks later, things with the Rosenwald Fund had gone bad. In late January Hurston received a letter from Fund president Edwin Embree informing her the two year fellowship had been revoked. She would receive $700 over a period of seven months to pursue study in New York and "if arrangements for further study and field work can be worked out satisfactory to us all either at Columbia or elsewhere, we are willing to consider an application for an extension of this fellowship under something like the terms I originally suggested." he implied that Hurston's plans were insufficiently definite to merit the original award.
What had happened to sour the trustees of the Rosenwald Fund? Embree explained it as a lack of confidence in Hurston's seriousness as a scholar, despite her enthusiastic endorsement by Franz Boas. Hurston reacted with (in the words of one of her biographers) "private rage and deep depression." She returned to New York, threw herself into an unhappy love affair, signed up for a few courses at Columbia but rarely went to class.
Two years later, in a letter to Melville Herskovits, anthropology professor at Northwestern University, Hurston offered a possible explanation of the Rosenwald fiasco. She wrote that perhaps something she had said to President Thomas Jones of Fisk University had made its way back to Edwin Embree and had alienated him. Jones, the white president of Fisk University, "did something to me which I still think was patronizing and contemptible. I told him immediately that I resented it and thought he ran his school like a Georgia plantation, with him as 'Mr. Charlie' and members of his faculty being 'good niggers' by carrying tales on the others, and he ought to be above it. He evidently told Embree about it for he froze up on me at once, proving to me that down in his heart he felt that niggers should stay in their places and not talk uppity to white folks no matter how justified the provocation...." She went on to say that she had heard "by the grape vine" that the Fund was grooming Katherine Dunham, also an anthropologist, to replace her among their fellows. Dunham received Rosenwald fellowships in 1935 and 1936.
It's an unhappy story. Were Embree and the other Rosenwald trustees disconcerted by the outspoken and flamboyant Hurston? Very likely. Did they treat her poorly? Yes, they did. The episode marked the end of Hurston's formal academic work. And yet -- the ever-resourceful Zora Neale Hurston went on to apply for and be granted a Guggenheim fellowship the following year for anthropological work in Jamaica and Haiti. And it was there, in the fall and winter of 1936 and 1937, that she wrote Their Eyes were Watching God.