Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy lives on in Central Florida, beyond

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Zora Neale Hurston may now be considered the most significant Black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century, but at the time of her death, family members say she was penniless.

Her 85-year-old niece, Vivian Hurston Bowden, said the writer died without any recognition for her now-acclaimed work.

“Nobody knew her before her death,” Bowden said.

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Her name is synonymous with Eatonville, but beyond growing up there, Hurston bounced around Central Florida writing her classics.

The author and anthropologist is revered for her work — more than 30 years of books, short stories, articles and plays, part of which almost went up in smoke.

“They were on fire,” Bowden said.

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They were set ablaze by someone in the Fort Pierce nursing home where Hurston died.

“A lot of the reproduction of her books and journals and essays were saved, but they were burned around the edges,” Bowden said.

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Someone at the home stepped in to save her work, and years after her death, Hurston’s career was revived by another flourishing Black writer, Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple.”

Interest in Hurston’s writing then took on a life of its own, and the family created a trust to protect her legacy, including her most successful work, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

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“I think she would be so thrilled that so many people have acknowledged that, ‘Hey, I was good then but you didn’t let me know it, but you know it now,’” Bowden said.

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Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.