Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Zora Neale Hurston, Genius of the Harlem Renaissance

Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Twentieth century African-American author Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But her perseverance and love of her culture made for a much richer life than many people know.

Near the turn of the century, Hurston was born the spirited daughter of former slaves. Her parents had gone on to become a schoolteacher and a Baptist preacher. Her father's sermons were likely what sparked the girl's fascination with storytelling, which she'd later use not only in her works, but also in the construction of her public persona.

Over the course of her life, Hurston offered contradictory dates of birth. And in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she inaccurately claimed Eatonville, Florida, as her birthplace, when in truth she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, probably on January 7, 1891. But Eatonville was her home from about age 3 to 13, and a major influence on her work. One of the first places in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black town, it was also home to a vibrant and proud African-American community that protected the young Hurston from the cruel racial prejudices found elsewhere in the United States. Years later, Hurston would cherish this place and the self-confidence it instilled in her works. She once described it as "A city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse."

Despite a seemingly ideal hometown, Hurston knew hardship. At 13, she lost her mother, and was booted out of boarding school when her father and new step-mom failed to foot the tuition bill. Down but not out, Hurston found work as a maid, serving an actress in a traveling theatrical company that gave her a taste of the world beyond Florida. In Baltimore, she lopped a decade off her age (a subtraction she maintained the rest of her days) to qualify for free public schooling that would allow her to complete her long-delayed high school education. From there, she worked her way through college, studied anthropology and folklore, and had her earliest works published in her school's paper. By 1920, the 29-year-old earned an associate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. Five years later, she made the fateful move to New York City, where she eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Barnard College after studying with the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. There, she also became a seminal and controversial icon of the Harlem Renaissance.

It's said that Hurston—with her brazen wit, affable humor, and charm—waltzed into the Harlem scene, easily befriending actress Ethel Waters, and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Professor and fellow folklorist Sterling Brown once remarked of her appeal, "When Zora was there, she was the party."

Electrified by the thriving literary movement that strove to define the contemporary African-American experience, Hurston penned the personal essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," where she boldly declared

"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

She and Hughes teamed up in 1930 to create a play for African-American actors that wouldn't use racial stereotypes. Regrettably, creative differences led to a falling out between the two that sunk The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life In Three Acts before the Eatonville-set fable managed to be produced. But Hurston rebounded with her musical The Great Day, which premiered on Broadway January 10, 1932. Next, came her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934. The following year saw the release of a meticulously curated collection of African American oral folklore. Mules and Men became the greatest success she'd see in her lifetime, and yet it earned Hurston only $943.75.  

Her next book, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written during her anthropological expedition to Haiti to study voodoo. Reflecting its divorced author's life, it followed a forty-something African American woman's journey through three marriages and self-acceptance. While the mainstream press praised Hurston's anthropological eye and her writing "with her head as with her heart," she faced a backlash from some of her Harlem Renaissance peers.

Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937. Wikimedia/Library of Congress // Public Domain

As the movement evolved, Harlem Renaissance writers had been debating how African-Americans should present their people and culture in their art. Should they devotedly fight against the negative stereotypes long established by Caucasian writers? Should their work be penned as progressive propaganda intended to expose the racism of modern America as a means to provoke change? Or should African-Americans create without the constraints of a political or creative ideology? Hurston sided with the last group, and saw her novel criticized for its embrace of the vernacular of the black South, its exploration of female sexuality, and its absence of an overt political agenda. Literary critic Ralph Ellison called Their Eyes Were Watching God a "blight of calculated burlesque," while essayist Richard Wright jeered, "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction." But fiction wasn't all she wrote. 

In 1938, Hurston published the anthropological study Tell My Horse; her aforementioned autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, came six years later. But following the release of her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston's career fell into decline. Through the 1950s, she occasionally managed to secure some work as a journalist, scraping by with stints as a substitute teacher and sometimes maid. Despite a prolific output that included four novels, two folklore collections, an autobiography, and a wealth of short stories, essays, articles and plays, Hurston died penniless and alone in a welfare home on January 28, 1960; her body—dressed in a pink dressing gown and fuzzy slippers—was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce.

It was an especially cruel fate because she'd once appealed to activist W.E.B. Du Bois to create "a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead" to assure that they'd never be discarded. Her rejected proposal read in part: "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored." 

This confident and rebellious creator's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance seemed certain to have doomed her to the realm of the forgotten. But in 1975, Alice Walker, who would go on to write the heralded novel The Color Purple, penned a legacy-shifting essay for Ms. magazine called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." The essay encouraged a new generation of readers to rediscover Hurston’s work. Their Eyes Were Watching God found a new life, and began popping up on school reading curriculums and earning reprintings in other languages, as did her other books. Mule Bone was finally published and staged in 1991. Historians scoured archives and uncovered a never-published manuscript of folklore Hurston had collected. Titled Every Tongue Got To Confess, it was published posthumously in 2001.

Not only were Hurston's works at long last given their due—so was she. In honor of the author who'd inspired her and countless others, Walker traveled to Florida to put a proper tombstone on Hurston's grave. It reads: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist."

This story originally ran in 2016.

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March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Virginia Apgar, the Woman Whose Name Saves Newborns
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

How important is Dr. Virginia Apgar to the modern practice of obstetrics? Here is the way the National Library of Medicine’s website puts it: “[E]very baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.”

Apgar created a quick and reliable way to determine the health of a newborn baby, an examination that is usually referred to today as a baby’s Apgar test. Before her test, invented in 1952, there was no objective way to determine the health of a newborn, and babies were given little medical attention immediately after birth. Problems often escaped notice until they became critical.

To determine an Apgar score, a nurse, midwife, or physician examines the baby for five criteria—skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing—at both one minute and five minutes after birth (and sometimes in further follow-up tests). Each criterion is given zero, one, or two points. A score over seven is considered normal. A score below three is seriously low. Babies often have lower scores at one minute after birth, but by five minutes have perked up and score in the normal range.

Because a common mnemonic for the criteria uses the letters APGAR (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration) to create a “backronym,” or retrofitted acronym, many people do not realize Apgar is an eponym—named after a person. Apgar herself was often amused when people were surprised to find she was a real individual.

But in person, Virginia Apgar was hard to forget. She was a pioneer in several fields of medicine, helping to establish anesthesiology as a medical specialty, working to study and improve obstetrical anesthesia, and advancing the study of birth defects. She helped organize and administer the first Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, her alma mater, and became the first woman to be a full professor there.

As a teacher of medicine, Apgar was known for her uninhibited sense of humor and could talk about anything without embarrassment. Because her own tailbone was at an odd angle, she would have medical students feel for it to help them learn how to administer spinal anesthetics. She always traveled with a resuscitation kit that included a penknife and an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube inserted into the windpipe to ventilate the lungs). "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!" she reportedly declared.

In the late 1950s, after Apgar had already made a name for herself with her work in anesthesiology and the creation of the Apgar score, she turned her attention to the study and prevention of birth defects. She was asked to join what was then the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis-March of Dimes (now simply the March of Dimes), which started researching and advocating for those with birth defects after it met its original goal of creating a vaccine against polio. As a director and later vice president at the March of Dimes, Apgar championed research that showed how factors such as infectious diseases, radiation exposure, substance abuse, and chemical exposure could cause birth defects. In her years with the organization, she also traveled the country speaking and calling attention to the issue of birth defects.

Outside of medicine, Apgar was a gardener, fly fisherman, and took flying lessons. Throughout her life, she was an excellent amateur violinist who often played in chamber ensembles. She even learned to make stringed instruments, including violins, a viola, and a cello.

In fact, her work as an amateur luthier even led her to a short career as a thief. In 1957, a musician friend noticed that a maple shelf in a phone booth at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would make an excellent back for a viola. The friend and Apgar set out to take the shelf at night and replace it with another piece of wood, which they managed to stain to just the right color. But the piece they brought was slightly too long, and needed to be shortened. While her friend went into a nearby ladies’ room to do the sawing, Apgar guarded the door. The piece became the back of Apgar’s viola, and was one of four instruments she handcrafted that were played by pediatricians at a 1994 ceremony to honor a commemorative U.S. stamp with Apgar’s image. (The instruments were later donated to Columbia, where they can still be rented.)

Virginia Apgar died of liver disease at the age of 65 in 1974, but her name lives on around the world—even though many don’t know it—in the life-saving score she designed for infants.

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Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
Laura de Force Gordon, Pioneering Newspaper Publisher, Lawyer, and Suffragist
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock

Laura de Force Gordon's life was filled with firsts. A dedicated writer and reporter, she was the first woman to publish a daily newspaper in the United States. She was also one of the nation's first female attorneys—although it took several determined campaigns for her to earn the right to practice. She's also credited with launching the women’s suffrage movement in California. Yet her legacy is not without controversy, and an intriguing discovery long after her death has led to speculation about her personal life.

Born Laura de Force in Erie County, Pennsylvania, on August 17, 1838, she was a Spiritualist before she was a feminist. The 19th century religious movement focused on communication with spirits and ghosts of the deceased, and de Force gained a following as a trance speaker—someone who could channel a spirit. She spent her early adulthood traveling through her native Pennsylvania and New England, giving lectures on a variety of topics including Spiritualism, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

She met her husband, Dr. Charles H. Gordon, while working as a trance speaker, and the couple decided to move to Nevada, and then California, in the late 1860s. She continued to give lectures on Spiritualism, the abolition of alcohol, and women’s rights along the way, although not without some pushback: Occasionally, men in the audience would stand up and try to debate her, but “she would turn it on them every time and the audience would roar,” according to the Lodi Historian.

Like a number of women—including Victoria Woodhull, often credited as the first woman to run for president of the United States—Gordon used her platform as a trance speaker and medium as a launching pad for a career as a women’s rights campaigner. She gave California’s first recorded speech on women and the vote in San Francisco in 1868, then helped found the California Woman’s Suffrage Society in 1870, often speaking before the state legislature on the society’s behalf. She would later serve as its president from 1884 to 1894.

Her career as a newspaperwoman began as a side effect of a failed campaign for a state senate seat. In 1871, just a year after she settled in California, the Independent Party of San Joaquin nominated her as their candidate. Women couldn’t yet vote, making a win highly unlikely, but the run was meant to make a point. Yet the male-dominated newspapers of the region didn’t take her campaign—or her work for women’s rights—seriously. Most just ignored it.

Gordon's solution was to purchase her own newspaper, the Stockton Leader. Her career as a newspaperwoman didn't end there: She converted the Stockton Leader to a daily in 1874 (in the process becoming the first woman to publish a daily paper in the nation); edited the Daily Democrat in Oakland, California; helped her sister Gertie found a weekly newspaper of her own; and served as a regular contributor to several California newspapers as well as the New Northwest of Portland, Oregon. Her status as a reporter and publisher granted her entry into a number of venues that would otherwise be closed to her as a woman, such as the State Assembly, where she had a press desk as a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee.

"LADY LAWYERS"

But Gordon wasn’t content to remain a journalist. She wanted a career in the courtroom. In order to make that happen, though, a number of things needed to change—starting with a California law that barred anyone but white males from being admitted to the state bar. Gordon teamed up with fellow writer and activist Clara Shortridge Foltz, and the pair worked together with state lawmakers to change the rule. Their work culminated in the Woman Lawyer’s Bill in March 1878, which went beyond its name to allow admission of “any citizen or person” to the bar.

That was just the first hurdle Gordon and Foltz had to leap over to begin their law careers. Although they were now technically permitted to work as attorneys, and no specific rule prevented their law training, law schools could still prevent them—in practice, if not in theory—from getting the education they needed for successful careers.

The saga began when Foltz registered to attend classes at Hastings College of the Law, one of the first law schools in California. Her first day was full of disruptions, as the male students imitated her every move as part of a hazing ritual. On the second day, she was blocked from classes by a janitor and had to get a note from the dean before she was allowed in.

On the third day, Gordon joined her friend, and the two vowed to support each other in their attempts to get a legal education. This lasted only a day before the school’s Board of Directors asked them not to return. “There was no written explanation for the exclusion, but Dean Hastings told [Foltz] and Gordon that their presence, particularly their rustling skirts, was bothering the other scholars,” writes Barbara Babcock in her book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz.

A photo of Laura de Force Gordon
Ralph Lea

The pair decided to fight. They continued to attend lectures until physically barred from the classrooms by their male classmates. Babcock writes that "they came to class one day to find the men blocking their entrance, staring at them in silent hostility."

In February 1879, they took the fight to the courts and the state legislature. Gordon and Foltz devised a single-line amendment to the state constitution, which Gordon sent to her allies at the second California constitutional convention, then in progress at the time. It read, “No person shall, on account of sex, be disqualified from entering upon or pursuing any lawful business, vocation or profession.” It was soon adopted by the convention.

At the same time, with advice from Gordon’s friend David Terry, a legal expert from Stockton, California, each woman filed a lawsuit against the college’s Board of Directors. The lawsuits relied on the fact that the law school was part of the state’s coeducational, taxpayer-funded public university system and should be required to admit the pair under those conditions. Gordon filed in the California Supreme Court, while Foltz filed in the state’s trial court. When the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, Gordon joined Foltz in the trial court.

By many accounts, the pair argued their case eloquently and skillfully. At the end of the trial, even Delos Lake, one of the attorneys representing the law school’s board, was convinced that they would be good attorneys. “If fair ladies were to be lawyers, [I] would rather have them as associates than opponents,” he said—apparently meaning he didn't ever want to be on the other side of the dock from them again. The judge ruled in their favor, as did the California Supreme Court on appeal, and they were admitted to the college.

For both, it was an enormous victory, and they became the first two women admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of California.

Once she obtained admission to the bar, Gordon gave up publishing newspapers to practice law (though she remained active in reporting on suffrage). She was especially known for her murder trial defenses, and was made an honorary member of the Royal Italian Literary Society of Rome after her successful defense of an Italian immigrant facing execution in one particular trial. Legend says the Southern Pacific Railroad gave her a lifetime pass after she did some exceptional legal work for the company. She even faced off against her friend and law school ally Foltz, who worked as a prosecutor, in the trial of confessed murderer George Wheeler—one of the few trials Gordon lost. Six years after being admitted to the California bar, she was admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming only the second woman in the U.S., after Belva Lockwood of Washington D.C., to gain that qualification.

"A LOVER OF HER OWN SEX"

Around 1880, Gordon suffered a devastating blow in her personal life. She found out that her husband had lied to her for nearly two decades: He had never divorced his first wife, who he had abandoned in Scotland when he traveled to the U.S. When Gordon found out about her husband’s transgressions—supposedly after detectives hired by his first wife tracked him down—she divorced him, referring to herself as a widow for the remainder of her life.

Portrait of Laura de Force Gordon
Congress of Women, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1979, more than 70 years after her death, Gordon turned heads again, this time when a 100-year-old time capsule buried in San Francisco’s Washington Square was opened. In it was a copy of a travel book Gordon had written, The Great Geysers of California and How to Reach Them, which she had donated for the time capsule in 1879, around the same time as her divorce. On the book she had written, “If this little book should see the light after its 100 years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the political equality and social and moral elevation of women.”

The inscription has inspired debate. Some have interpreted this to be a declaration that she was a lesbian, while others interpret her words as a more platonic statement in favor of women’s rights. Gordon’s life offers few clues; although she never married again after her divorce, there is no surviving evidence that she had any romantic relationships with other women, either.

Gordon was not a perfect champion of rights for all. Like other members of the Democratic Party in the late 1800s, she spoke out against Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, who she said were taking jobs and opportunities from white American citizens. Gordon gave a number of anti-Chinese lectures, and also made comments—including during the lawsuit against Hastings—condemning the idea that Chinese men should be allowed to do anything white women were barred from. The extent to which these attitudes were a matter of personal conviction or political expediency remains a source of debate.

In 1901, Gordon retired to Lodi, but her retirement was short-lived. She went back on the lecture circuit again in 1906, traveling until she caught a cold in Los Angeles. She died on April 5, 1907, after a brief battle with pneumonia, at the age of 68. Women in California gained the right to vote in 1911—just four years after her death.

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