Hurston was born (as Zora Lee Hurston) in Notasulga, Alabama, the fifth of eight children. When she was 3, her family moved to the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where her father (a Baptist preacher) eventually became the town's mayor. Soon after her mother's untimely death in 1904, her father remarried, and Hurston was soon sent to a boarding school in Jacksonville. Upon graduation she immediately enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Hurston and noted folklorists Alan Lomax and Stetson Kennedy were commissioned to record blues musicians and other folk artists in Florida. Hurston toured Florida on a sound recording expedition collecting songs and stories from working people using equipment on loan from the Library of Congress (where 18 of her original recordings are preserved). Her Florida recordings of work songs, “good time” songs, Bahamian blues, and even a blues melody by Zora herself greatly inform our knowledge of blues history in Florida.
Zora Neale Hurston also stands as the most celebrated black female writer ever to work in Florida and is one of the undisputed titans of African-American literature in U.S. history. A major figure of New York's Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Hurston's writing influenced generations of black writers, including such distinguished, latter-day figures as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Gayl Jones.
But the 1950s brought Hurston a litany of troubles that eventually drove her into obscurity and poverty. Spending most of her time in South Florida, she worked at a variety of jobs, ranging from a maid to a newspaper reporter. In 1957, she moved to Fort Pierce where a family friend from Eatonville invited her to live in a small house rent-free. In 1960, a debilitating stroke forced her into a welfare home, where she died at the age of 69. She was buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery.
In the early 1970s, Hurston's remarkable life was rediscovered by noted black author Alice Walker, who had been heavily influenced by Hurston's writings. In 1973, Walker travelled to Fort Pierce and found what is believed to be Hurston's gravesite. Walker had a headstone installed with the inscription "Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South."