Zora Neale Hurston, 1938 and unknown date. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/17244. Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/33048. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten.
I was 13, and the night seemed pitch black as I made my path along the wooden docks, careful not to get pinched by boats bumping against the dock when they quietly drummed a “thunk. . . thunk” tune of wood against wood and echoed through the huge covered boat house. Walking in the dark just above the slapping sounds of the river seemed mysterious and a little unsettling with only a dim light here and there high over head–just enough for me to make out the wriggling shrimp on my dangling hook. I was at Howard Boat Works where my father was employed by day.
I was unaware that 14 years earlier the ambitious young African American writer Zora Neale Hurston was living alone at these same dark docks on her houseboat tied up along the banks of the Halifax River at Howard Boat Works at 633 Ballough Road where Caribbean Jack’s Restaurant is today. “Zora,” as she is affectionately called even by literary critics, is honored every year in her Central Florida hometown of Eatonville (near Orlando) with a festival, but Daytona Beach also deserves a good portion of her honor, too.
First Visit to Daytona Beach, Bethune-Cookman College
Zora Neale Hurston is best known today for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) which is taught in high schools and colleges throughout the U.S., but in 1933 still at the cusp of her career, the flamboyant Hurston came to Daytona Beach for the first time with high hopes because Mary McLeod Bethune, President of Bethune-Cookman College, had invited her to Bethune’s upcoming 57th birthday celebration on July 10. Hurston was anticipating the possibility that here in Daytona Beach she could obtain a full-time position, especially craved in the uncertain times of the Great Depression, and she wrote to her benefactor Charlotte Osgood Mason that Mrs. Bethune “has some very powerful friends” (Kaplan 262; Boyd 237)
Bethune was impressed that in January, at Rollins College in Winter Park, Hurston had staged a successful Florida premiere of her musical play From Sun to Sun, enlivened with African American folklore and songs, and near the end of 1933 Hurston wrote to a friend that Mrs. Bethune had invited her “to establish a school of dramatic arts based on pure Negro expression” and that Hurston wished to work out themes for the drama school that would be “gorgeously Negro” (Moylan 25; Kaplan 165, 288).
What Hurston did not know, though, was that the college was in such need of funds that Mrs. Bethune had given up her own salary for the entire year. This was in character for Bethune who two years earlier had been ranked as one of the top ten of the fifty most outstanding living American women (Flemming 52; Long 35)
From the very beginning in her new position at Bethune-Cookman College, Hurston struggled to create a drama school because during the Great Depression the college had only 226 students, most of whom were actively involved in “major athletics,” college performing groups, and other college organizations. She later wrote, “I was given the old hospital building without a cent of money and told to turn it into a theatre. I even had difficulty getting a light bulb for my office” (Kaplan 317).
Hurston, as tenacious as a bulldog, successfully arranged for the students to perform From Sun to Sun before an enthusiastic audience of 2,100 at the formerly segregated Daytona Beach Auditorium (where Peabody Auditorium stands today), but she later wrote to others that she had been “plugging away in the dark” and “I decided to abandon the farce of Bethune-Cookman’s Dramatic department and get on with my work” (Kaplan 179, 318).
1943 — Living on a Houseboat
Hurston swept out of Daytona Beach in 1934, but in February 1943 she returned with hope and with money in hand because her autobiographical book Dust Tracks on a Road had just been awarded the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for the “best book in racial problems in the field of creative literature.” The prize was $1,000, a huge sum back then–enough for her to buy her first home–a twenty-year-old, 32-foot wooden houseboat with a 44-horsepower engine. She named it Wanago (“Want to Go”), and she set up home at Howard Boat Works (Kaplan 780; Lucy Anne Hurston 27; Hemenway 296; Moylan 35; Boyd 370).
Elizabeth Howard has been identified as the young daughter of the white owner of Howard Boat Works by Hurston biographer Virginia Lynn Moylan (though his obituary does not mention a daughter), and Ms. Howard recalls her visits as a child on Hurston’s houseboat: “Inside the cabin were windows all around. I would sit at a little table and Zora would be sitting across from me.” She remembers being captivated by Hurston’s folktales, especially “a folktale about how black people got black. The day Zora told me that story she was wearing a brown turban. I loved Zora’s stories, and I loved Zora” (Moylan 35).
Hurston wrote to her novelist friend Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings that on the houseboat in Daytona Beach “I have the solitude that I love. . . . All the other boat owners are very nice to me. Not a word about race” (Hemenway 296).
She invited the nationally famous African American poet Countee Cullen to visit, but she jokingly warned him that her houseboat has a small toilet and that he could only squeeze into it “if your behind does not stick out too far.” Hurston also told Rawlings that the boat was crammed with books and papers (Hemenway 296).
For the next four years, Hurston lived on the Wanago and later a second houseboat, taking scenic tours up and down the Halifax River and passionately enjoying fishing. She wrote, “I love the sunshine the way it is done in Florida. Rain the same way–in great slews or not at all. . . . I dislike cold weather and all of its kinfolk: that takes in bare trees and a birdless morning” (Hemenway 296).
During her first year back in Daytona Beach, 1943, on the houseboat she wrote magazine articles for the Saturday Evening Post, The American Mercury, Reader’s Digest, and she was hoping to be accepted by The New Yorker (Boyd 362), but into the early months of 1944 she continued to live off the Anisfield Prize money (Boyd 372), loving her life at Howard Boat Works where she said she “achieved one of my life’s pleasures by owning at last a houseboat. Nothing to delay the sun in its course. . . . The Halifax River is very beautiful and the various natural expressions of the day on the river keep me happier than I have ever been before in my life. . . . Here, I can actually forget for short periods the greed and ultimate brutality of man to man” (Hemenway 298).
Hurston left Daytona Beach for a short while in the spring of 1944, going to New York to develop a musical comedy, Polk County, with Dorothy Waring, a white woman, but she returned home to Daytona Beach in mid-July 1944, and stayed until the fall when she prepared the Wanago and then “sailed” in it 1,500 miles to New York City (Boyd 374; Hemenway 298).
During 1944, she survived a tonsillectomy and the September 15, Category 2, hurricane that hit Long Island, likely causing her to replace the weathered Wanago with another houseboat that she bought when she returned to Daytona Beach (Moylan 36; 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane).
She named her second houseboat Sun Tan, and she reveled in her homecoming to Florida, as her biographer Robert Hemenway writes, “sometimes eating a dozen oranges at a single sitting.” She wrote to a friend, however, in July 1945, “I have been sick with my colon and general guts for a long, long time, and really for a while I thought I would kick the bucket,” but then she noted with hope, “The sun is shining in my door.” By then she was writing a novel and several essays (Hemenway 302; Moylan 37).
In February 1946, while still living at Howard Boat Works, she joined a shrimp boat that went out through Ponce Inlet into the Atlantic Ocean. Hurston was braving this adventure so she could do research for her novel Seraph on the Suwanee (partially set in New Smyrna Beach), and she wrote, “It was tough and rough. . . .The men, white and black, who put shrimp on the table of the nation are made of the stuff of pioneers” (Boyd 381; Kaplan 781).
Later, she sold the Sun Tan, possibly to pay for a trip to Honduras to locate a lost Mayan city. Also, after leaving Daytona Beach, she finished her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (Moylan 37; Nathiri 35).
1956 — Last Visit to Daytona Beach, Bethune-Cookman College
Ten years passed before Hurston returned to Daytona Beach for her final visit–this time to be honored as a special podium guest at the May 28, 1956, commencement ceremony at Bethune-Cookman College where she was awarded for her contributions to “education and human relations” (Moylan 148). It was an honor that she was pleased to receive.
Today, 54 years after Hurston’s death in 1960, Daytona Beach honors the author Stephen Crane with a yearly conference at Lilian Place, the house where he recovered from his shipwreck in 1897. Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most esteemed African American novelists, also deserves similar recognition by Daytona Beach because she made 633 Ballough Road her home for several years.
To write this I used these sources:
1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane. March 15, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1944_Great_Atlantic_hurricane (accessed March 22, 2014).
“Boat Works Owner Hatten Howard Dies.” Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal (11 Nov. 1973, 8B). http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1873&dat=19731110&id=d2weAAAAIBAJ&sjid=c8kEAAAAIBAJ&pg=985,3515397 (accessed March 22, 2014).
Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neal Hurston. New York, New York: Scribner, 2003.
Flemming, Sheila Y. The Answered Prayer to a Dream: Bethune Cookman College, 1904-1994. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning Company Publishers, 1995.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston. A Literary Biography. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1980.
Hurston, Lucy Anne. Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2004.
Long, Nancy Ann Zrinyi. The Life and Legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune. Boston, Massachusetts. Pearson Custom Publishing, 2006.
Moylan, Virginia Lynn. Zora Neale Hurston’s Final Decade. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2011.
Nathiri, N. Y. Ed. Zora! Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman and Her Community. Orlando, Florida: Orlando Sentinel, 1991.