While Zora Neale Hurston was once the Queen of the Harlem Renaissance period, life did not end well. She suffered a stroke and spent a year in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She was destitute and had almost no visitors; only a few of her acquaintances knew she was there. On January 28, 1960, she passed away from a heart attack. Some funds were raised, and she was buried in an unmarked grave at the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery in Ft. Pierce, Florida.
Thirteen years later, Alice Walker and Hurston scholar Charlotte D. Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Zora was buried and proclaimed it was her burial site. Walker commissioned the marker shown in the photo above. It should be pointed out that Hurston was born in 1891 and not in 1901. Zora’s tall tales were not limited to the fictional tales she was famous for in addition to her anthropological research.
On a return trip from Miami, my girlfriend and I passed Ft. Pierce on Interstate-95 and decided to find Zora’s gravesite. Hint: If you use Google Maps, enter the physical address of 1815 N 17th St in Fort Pierce and not the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery. You’ll thank me later.
I knew the story of Alice Walker discovering Zora’s grave and how her efforts helped revitalize Zora’s literature. Her books were reprinted. In 1990, the first outdoor festival was presented by the not-for-profit Preserve Eatonville Community organization (P.E.C.) who has grown the event to become the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities held the last weekend of January each year. I enjoyed working with the P.E.C. at the festival the first several years but had never been to Zora’s grave.
Disappointment was the first word that came to mind after finding Zora’s gravesite. There was a sign next to the grave containing highlights of Zora’s career. The sign was faded and covered with bird droppings. The paint had chipped away from the stone covering the grave, and weeds were sprouting from the stone itself. The ground surrounding the plot was full of weeds and poorly manicured.
At the entrance of the grave’s general area, there were two stone pillars containing images meant to represent books, hats that Zora was famous for, and images of a woman who resembled the wicked witch of the west far more than they did Zora Neale Hurston.
Lest I be accused of not saying nice about the memorial site, the pavers near the entrance looked very nice. See! I said something nice.
Zora’s obituary proclaimed her a “Genius of the South.” A quote from Jean Toomer’s poem, Georgia Dusk that appeared in his book Cane. The Genius of the South quote appears on her headstone as well. Zora was indeed a genius and deserved to be treated as such. Some individual(s) or organization(s) should step up and restore the site. Perhaps her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, or her publisher HarperCollins that is profiting more after her death than Zora did in life.
In these days of the coronavirus, money is tight everywhere, but somebody out there that loves Zora and her works should step up. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite Zora quotes:
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”
This post was previously published on Medium.
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Photo credit: iStock