Zora Neale Hurston on the River Road: Portrait of Algiers, New Orleans, and her Fieldwork

By Mona Lisa Saloy


Anthropological and folkloric professionals, and other fans, enjoy and respect Zora Neale Hurston's "Hoodoo" section in her book Mules and Men, first published in 1935. Much has been made of its Hoodoo content, the verisimilitude of her tales, the authentic linguistic idioms represented, yet rarely is there any mention of Hurston's particular movements along River Road and its communities along the Mississippi at the end of the 1920s, when she was conducting the fieldwork incorporated in this significant book. This gap invites an examination of recent Hurston literary scholarship, historical record and mapping, and local publications to chart her particular movements. Such investigation allows us to better understand the River Road areas Hurston traversed while collecting, researching, analyzing, and writing for Mules and Men, and the challenges she faced in fieldwork.

In his eloquent introduction to Hurston's autobiography, Robert E. Hemenway says about the unique context of Zora Neale Hurston's fieldwork that the "pressures were both racial and sexual. She was a pioneering role model as a woman who rejected sexual roles, traveling with only a handgun, a two-dollar dress, a suitcase full of courage through some of the roughest and remotest parts of the rural south" (1984: xv). Hurston was southern and Negro at a time when educated Black women were rare; she was single, entering communities of families. Imagine Professor Richard Dorson hanging around Black neighborhoods in Detroit for weeks while local brothers check him out and wonder whether they want to be bothered. Insider or outsider, we folklorists know too well that we cannot just knock on the doors of strangers and request a performance.

Two questions are at the heart of this investigation into Hurston's fieldwork: What did she do? How did she do it? In"Hoodoo, " readers can explore and enjoy the lore she identified and presented. This essay investigates Hurston's fieldwork context: where she went, for how long, her many trips traversing the deep South, where she landed to accomplish that "Hoodoo" chapter. From specific addresses and contexts of some of the neighborhoods in which she resided, Hurston's literary correspondence, and a recent oral history interview, here is a brief portrait of the folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, at work along the River Road and in the deep South.

Hurston's "Hoodoo" section in Mules and Men, along with recent scholarly contributions (see Plant 2007, Kaplan 2002, Ward 2001, Estes 1998) provides a folklorist's view into her fieldwork, the results of which became her signature collection. Literary letters provide addresses to specific places Hurston lived while here in Louisiana, as well as other locations she traveled in the South. For folklorists and literary lovers of Hurston, revisiting her time in New Orleans reveals a mapping of the places where Hurston lived and worked, and some insights into her "actual" life and habits during those months. The addresses on record combined with Hurston's correspondence of the period, interwoven with a look at the neighborhoods in which she resided, and a recent interview with a neighbor who ran her errands, result in new insights into her time here and help us understand her movements as she collected, researched, and wrote for Mules and Men.

Before investigating Hurston's movements, it is helpful to revisit the context of her life at the time. We know that by 1925, her short story "Spunk" was published in Opportunity and in Alain Locke's landmark publication The New Negro. Between 1925 and 1933, Hurston saw several more of her works published, including "John Redding" and the tale "Muttsy," which appeared in Opportunity; and a play, The First One, in Charles Johnson's edited volume Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea (1927). Hurston made a propitious beginning, but many frustrating years passed before she published a full-length work.

The general historic record tells us that it was in 1926, near the end of her studies at Barnard, that Hurston came to the attention of anthropologist Franz Boas, then teaching at Columbia University. Impressed by a term paper Hurston had written, Boas decided to make an anthropologist of her. Under Boas's tutelage, Hurston learned the value of the material she had already incorporated into her fiction. She learned to view the good old lies and racy, sidesplitting anecdotes that were being passed around among Black folk every day in her native Eatonville as invaluable folklore, creative material that continued the African oral tradition and reflected the ebb and flow of the African people stolen, transported, then evolving in America. Encouraged by Boas and a $1,400 fellowship from the Carter G. Woodson Foundation (Wideman 2001), Hurston decided to collect some of this African-American lore, to record songs, customs, tales, superstitions, lies, jokes, dances, and games.

An entry on Zora Neale Hurston in Gale online research summaries reports that Hurston's early attempts to collect lore were unsuccessful. Specifically, the entry states that "her Southern, country subjects balked at her 'Barnard' accent, and her mission failed" ( free_resources/bhm/bio/hurston_z.htm). As Hurston says in her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks:

When I went about asking, in carefully-accented Barnardese, "Pardon me, do you know any folktales or folk-songs?" the men and women who had whole treasuries of material seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around here. Maybe it was over in the next county. Why didn't I try over there? (1942: 175)

As a result, Hurston was not able to collect enough material "to make a flea a waltzing jacket" (Hurston 1996:128). She did not make the attempt again until she accepted the patronage of Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy, white Park Avenue matron who supported Indian and African-American arts and any other endeavors that she felt exemplified "primitivisms." According to Gale biographical entries, Hurston was probably introduced to Mason by Locke, who seems to have functioned as Mason's emissary to black artists. When Hurston met Mason in September 1927, Mason was already the patron of Langston Hughes, Miguel Covarrubias, Louise Thompson, and Richmond Barthé ( To them and to Hurston, Mason became a beneficent godmother and a surrogate parent, prescribing and proscribing the courses of their lives. Mason was impressed by Hurston's credentials; and on December 1, 1927, she drew up a formal contract that would allow Hurston to return to the South to collect folklore ( The contract promised a monthly stipend of $200, a moving-picture camera, and one Ford automobile ( Hurston was "faithfully" to perform her task and "to return to Mason all of said information, data, transcripts of music, etc., which she shall have obtained" ( Though this opportunity was what Hurston needed, its accompanying restrictions were not. Hurston felt like a child laboring under a difficult taskmaster and circumstances.

As an undergraduate student at Louisiana State University, I learned that Hurston went into Harlem measuring Black people's heads for her professor. Her collecting began as it did for many of us: as students in the university setting.1 A fieldwork contract with Charlotte Osgood Mason at Howard Library Archives is dated December 1928; perhaps this was their second contract for collecting lore ( By July of 1928, Hurston was already in New Orleans collecting, and writing to Mrs. Mason regularly (Kaplan 2002:124).

Hurston's Personal Information

In addition to Hurston's public life in folklore, she married and continued to pursue her education while collecting lore and writing. On May 19, 1927, Hurston married Herbert Sheen and was divorced on July 7, 1931 ( Hurston's marriage and divorce overlap the span of time collecting lore; and as the timeline constructed for this study shows, her research schedule was more than rigorous (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Timeline of Hurston's fieldwork in context of her correspondence and travel during the period.

Robert E. Hemenway details Hurston's career, noting her graduation from Barnard in the late 1920s, the beginning of her career in writing plays, directing musical dance in New York, Florida, Chicago, the publication of her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1980: 121-122). That same year, the Rosenwald Foundation offered her a fellowship to enter the doctoral program in anthropology at Columbia University; she accepted the fellowship but never completed the degree. Instead, using field notes that she had collected in New Orleans and Florida in 1927, she wrote Mules and Men, which she published in 1935. On the strength of that and her other accomplishments, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study West Indian folk life in Haiti (Hemenway 1980: 121-122).

In addition, having been a student of Franz Boas- the "German-born American anthropologist who stressed the systematic analysis of culture and language structures" (Hoffman-Jeep) - Hurston was aware of the scarcity of reliable collections of African American folklore by Black ethnographers. It was Boas who arranged the fellowship through Carter G. Woodson (Hemenway 1980: 122). With this fellowship, Hurston was to travel and collect lore in Florida and New Orleans.

The project here is to provide some ethnographic insight into how this extraordinary and early Black folklorist worked, how she managed to do what she did, in what manner, with what timeline, where, and how she interacted specifically as an outsider passionately seeking insider information. The idea for this project began prior to Hurricane Katrina when Mr. Lawrence Martin, Esquire, relayed stories about Mrs. Grooms, his neighbor, who as a child ran errands for Zora Neale Hurston; this discussion occurred when he designed, produced, and distributed a unique Harlem Renaissance poster of principal writers of the time, including Hurston. It was when he shared the poster with his neighbor that she acknowledged her acquaintance with Hurston. An avid reader and Harlem Renaissance aficionado, Mr. Martin generously arranged for an interview by the author. To that end, it is necessary to revisit Hurston's correspondence of the period from the end of summer in 1928 to the winter of 1929/1930, which presents a frenetic and significant timeline of activities in various places over the course of a year-and-a-half. The pace of movement between communities is astounding even by today's standards (see Figure 1).

Carla Kaplan affirms in her notes to Hurston's letter to Langston Hughes that she was selling Hughe‘ books of poetry, The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew, to augment her income as she traveled while collecting folklore (2002:124). Mules and Men was originally titled "Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States combining stories, work songs, and religious material" (Kaplan 2002: 124). Kaplan reports that at the time, the Society of American Folklore was probably the most prestigious national organization devoted to folklore (2002: 124).

In August of 1928, Zora Neale Hurston wrote to Langston Hughes:

Dear Langston,

I have landed in the kingdom of Marie Laveau and expect to wear her crown someday - Conjure Queen as you suggested.

Loved your letter. Books almost all gone. Check will be forwarded as soon as the last one is in. People like you immensely.

I have taken a 3 room house here in a splendid neighborhood from the point of view of collecting material. Besides it is cheaper than room rent. 10 ($) month with electric lights & running water. I have furnished it for ($)16. Someday I wish you could camp here to write.

My Plans: 1 volume of stories. 1 children‘s games. 1 Drama and the Negro 1 "Mules & Men" a volume of work songs with guitar arrangement 1 on Religion. 1. On words & meanings. 1 volume of love letters with an introduction on Negro love.

Send Grandmother a melon a week before sailing, a bit in intended-to-be-humorous MS.S as you suggested, & a steamer letter.

I am putting you up for the Society of Am. Folk-lore this week. Do you think Dr. Locke would like it also if I can find grounds for proposing him?

You shall hear from me soon again. Glad to hear that you are tooling some new songs. Speaking of songs Porter Grainger has notified me that one of the bits of funk I handed him will be paying a royalty this month. Something about "Jelly Roll."

Most Sincerely,

Zora (Kaplan 2002: 24)

One term here, Hurston's reference to "Jelly Roll," is defined by Kaplan as slang for sex, or in particular the vagina, so it is a type of sexy song she presented to Grainger (Kaplan 2002: 124).

Figure 2. Old Algiers, Louisiana circa 1930.

Hurston's letter to Langston Hughes outlines her desire to investigate Black culture in New Orleans, and places her firmly in Algiers, in Belleville Court, the heart of the Black community (see Figure 2, Old Algiers circa 1930). Old Algiers was then a bedroom community for musicians who wore tuxedos by night (they generally worked in the French Quarter); by day, they were husbands and fathers, perhaps longshoremen. According to Mrs. Grooms, the house Hurston rented, and indeed all of Belleville Court, was owned by a "well-established Black land owner, a Mr. Joubert from the area" (Grooms 2009) (see Figure 3).

In a letter to Langston Hughes dated October 15, 1928, Hurston writes:

I stayed a week at 834 Orleans, but the bed bugs routed me, so I moved up here. It is better anyway for I am sort of in the lap of the activities. Algiers, is as dead as Babylon. It seems that police activities is responsible for the removal. Oh. I have a marvelous dance ritual from the ceremony of death. Lots of thrilling things to make your heart glad." (Kaplan 2002: 127) (see Figure 4 for Hurston's New Orleans address)

It was in Algiers that Hurston wrote furiously. Mrs. Grooms recalls that Zora Neale Hurston was pounding relentlessly on that typewriter; she was a sight working at home and writing day and night (Grooms 2009).

Figure 3. Bellevue Court. Zora Neale Hurston's address was 1222 Bellevue Street.

Mrs. Grooms reports that when she was 12 years old, Ms. Hurston moved into the neighborhood, saw her playing, and was cordial. Now at 93, she is not sure of their first conversation, but she remembers that Ms. Hurston needed help. She was friendly with all the kids, but saw something in the young Naomi Grooms, who remembers fondly that she excelled in oral interpretation. Perhaps Hurston saw a little of herself in the young Naomi. Mrs. Grooms says, "I asked, well Ms. Hurston, what do you need done?" Zora wanted her house cleaned on a regular basis. Could Naomi help her? First, per the decorum of the day, Ms. Zora had to ask Naomi's mother for permission.

Mrs. Grooms's mother, Ida, was a former school teacher trained at Leland College. At the time, Leland College was on St. Charles Avenue, at the site of the early Gilbert Academy; both were then a part of Dillard University. 2 An educated woman, Mrs. Ida Willis was born in Raceland, Louisiana, but secured a teaching position in Morgan City where she met her husband, Mr. Willis. Ida Willis taught her young daughter Naomi elocution, and she became quite a prodigy, having to stand on tables so that - despite her short stature -- she could be heard. It is interesting that out of all the kids playing in the Court, Hurston selected the young Naomi as her worker and young friend.

Figure 4. Zora Neale Hurston's New Orleans address was 2744 Amelia Street.

Naomi Willis was sent regularly to the corner store, then Black-owned and called "Joe Lewis." The store on Belleville and Lemarc Streets was the hangout of all the young boys (Grooms 2008). It must be made clear that as a child, Naomi was about the things of a child; as a result, she made no note of who came and went. Certainly, in her correspondence, Hurston notes which hoodoo practitioners visited her at the Court. Little Naomi had no specific knowledge of Hurston's visitors. What Naomi remembers is scrubbing the wide plank floors at Zora's house, running to the store for foodstuffs (lots of bread, beans and rice), and keeping the entire house clean. Naomi says that she cleaned for Hurston every week for no pay, for this was the custom and expectation of her mother, to help for the sake of helping. Per her mother's explicit instructions, Naomi was to take no money from the nice educated lady who needed to research and write most of all. Ida Willis and Ms. Zora were very friendly in a neighborly way, chatting on their respective porches some days, sharing an iced tea on occasion, passing the time while watching the night sky some evenings. Naomi Grooms insists that Hurston interacted with all the neighbors and kids. Though educated and single, Hurston was welcomed as part of neighborhood. Mrs. Grooms attributes her mother's understanding of Hurston's work to easing Hurston's singlehood seamlessly into the neighborhood. She had her own money; when home, she kept to herself. How? What else exactly did Ms. Hurston do during those days? Little Naomi remembers that Ms. Hurston pounded continuously on her typewriter, and that was such a different sight to see. Naomi's mother, Mrs. Willis, understood what a writer must do and was protective of Hurston's efforts. 3

Just across from Belleville Court, over the Canal Bridge, was the "mini-cat quarters," and Mr. Joubert owned many if not all of those, too. Of course, the "mini-cat quarters" were houses of ill repute for gentlemen of the night, all night. Also on the corner of Belleville Court was a hall used for dances by the Social and Pleasure clubs, 4 which numbered in the hundreds; as a result, there was never a dull moment. 5

Figure 5. Title page and contents page of the Woods Directory, circa 1922.

On the other hand, it was in New Orleans that Zora recited Hughes' works in a drugstore shop and attended social events. Because of the nature of then Jim Crow racial segregation, general business directories leave few clues to the lifestyle of the Negro communities of the 1920s in New Orleans. It was necessary to research publications by Negroes, for Negroes, which are still in existence. While there were few, the primary Black directory of those days, which incorporated downtown New Orleans and Old Algiers is still available in tattered photocopy. Produced by Allen T. Woods circa 1922-1923, it is called simply the Woods Directory6 (see Figure 5). The Woods Directory, published regularly for a series of years, details a varied and lively Negro community life, from Economy Hall dances, to the Othello Theatre in Hurston's New Orleans neighborhood, the drugstore where she read and sold Hughes' work, to the many Social and Pleasure Club halls and activities right on Belleville Court.

According to the United States Government Census records for 1920, the population of New Orleans was 387,219; by 1930, it had grown to 458,762 ( The city was booming when Zora Neale Hurston set foot on River Road, traversing the Mississippi by slow ferry travel to find hoodoo and folklore. At that time, in the late 1920s, crossing the Mississippi was possible in New Orleans only by ferry, a trip that was far longer than the 35 to 40 minutes it takes today because of the Long bridge. The Huey P. Long Bridge, a cantilevered steel truss bridge carrying a two-track railroad line with two lanes on either side of the central tracks, which replaced the Walnut Street Ferry, opened in December 1935, making travel across the Mississippi more convenient than before. The bridge was the first Mississippi River span built in Louisiana and connected New Orleans proper with the Algiers community; such convenience allows easy commuting across the mighty Mississippi in stark contrast to the slow crossings Hurston made on a regular basis.

The sheer rigorous extent of traveling during such a time is only the tip of Hurston's ethnographic gifts. Hurston crossed the Mississippi month to month, from New Orleans to Algiers and back, to Mobile, Alabama, back to New Orleans, then to Florida, to Nassau in the Bahamas, back to Bogalusa, New Orleans, and Algiers, all over the course of a year and a half. Hurston must have fought muddy, flooded roads, the result of massive end-of-summer rainstorms, at a time when few roads were paved, and even fewer if any were lighted. The lore recorded in Mules and Men is more than a record, it is a testimony to the art of Hurston's ethnographic task, one of artistry.

Anthropologist and historian James Clifford has "unveiled the mystique of the ethnographer" by exploring the "artistry and invention involved in ethnographic writing."

Beyond the perhaps unconscious but still intentional recreation of a culture by the ethnographer, Clifford points out further that "interpreters constantly construct themselves through the others they study" (10). An ethnography that recreates a culture, while at the same time inscribing the self, requires from the investigator both physical distance and intense proximity. Recreating a culture can be a conscious attempt by the ethnographer to bring again to life in writing that culture which he or she has experienced firsthand. A recreation of a culture differs considerably from a sometimes sterile, analytical description of a people or group. . . . . The dichotomy of distance and proximity may entail physical travel to a specific geographic site and/or an intellectual or emotional "journey" through memory, in order to establish the psychological distance prerequisite for achieving perspective and, oddly enough, what we call insight. Crucial here is the paradoxical and yet fundamental role that physical and emotional distances play in facilitating insight and recognition, while simultaneously promoting a scholar's self-construction. (Hoffman-Jeep)

As Hoffman-Jeep and James Clifford articulate, Zora Neale Hurston navigated immense physical distances to enter, document, and recreate a vivid culture first hand. Hurston was an insider as a Negro and a woman, but an outsider as a Floridian in New Orleans and other points south. She achieved the product we all have come to know and love; she delivered a tremendous cultural, historical, and social document through incredible physical and geographic travels and extensive lore collecting, combined with the discipline to process, order, and polish a marvelous manuscript, long before the field of folklore itself was polished.

The Hoodoo Section of Mules and Men

The hoodoo section of Mules and Men stylistically reads very differently than the colloquial and localized personal voice in the book's first part, which consists of stories, tales, and lies she collected during fieldwork in her native Florida. In the book's hoodoo section, Hurston writes more scientifically; it is a scholar's presentation of inside information garnered by becoming a hoodoo practitioner. Here Hurston excels ethnographically as the detached folklorist as she details her various initiations, glossaries, remedies, rituals, and accoutrements of hoodoo. She remains true to the real authority of hoodoo and its practitioners, reporting objectively yet providing insider insight. Clearly, the direction her collection took was fed by the lively experiences she had while traversing New Orleans to Old Algiers7 and to Bogalusa. If present-day ethnographers are humbled by the quality and quantity of important folklore collected in these areas by Hurston after the turn of the twentieth century, we must now be forever humbled by the extensive and rigorous dedication reflected in the sheer magnitude of Hurston's travels, within a very short time frame, that made her research possible. From the depth and breadth of the lore Hurston collected, the results of her zig-zag travels across the deep-south at the turn of the century, we must feel and understand more keenly when Hurston says "Folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds" (Hurston 1935:3). With few if any lighted or paved roads, no modern conveniences save an old Ford, Hurston's ethnographic feat is a marvel for any collector, particularly by a single Black woman, traversing Louisiana River Roads, the deep South during the heyday of lynching, Jim Crow, and the Jazz Age. Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist extraordinaire.8


1. My folklore studies began in classes taught by Professor Rosan Jordan at Louisiana State University. Through her, I met her husband, a prominent folklorist in the state, Professor Frank de Caro, who also always encouraged my efforts and served on my dissertation committee (specifically for the controversy of whether Black Beat Poet Bob Kaufman was an "oral" poet versus a literary poet). While at LSU, and having loved my folklore studies with Dr. Jordan, I met Dr. Joyce Marie Jackson. She sent me into fieldwork, a passion that (along with her referrals) took me to collecting in Michigan, Louisiana, California, and Washington states. What a blessing to have such great teachers!

2. Leland College was a teachers college, part of the initial historically Black colleges and universities for Negroes formed at the end of the antebellum period. Though an educated and trained teacher, Mrs. Ida Williams was a stay-at-home mother. Once they married, women, Black or white, were no longer permitted to teach. This practice existed from the end of the 19th through the turn of the 20th century.

3. Today it is still difficult for folklorists to enter communities as strangers, selectively zero in on tradition bearers, arrange to interview them, and then collect lore. It is fascinating that this newly professional Hurston ventured throughout the South successfully entering communities, selecting folks, interviewing, and collecting lore.

4. Within half a dozen blocks of Belleville Court is a neighborhood cemetery which has hundreds of Social and Pleasure Club tomb names, as well as families from Old Algiers.

5. I am deeply indebted to the following persons who helped with this work: first, Mrs. Naomi Grooms for her wonderful interview, our visits, to her son, a retired educator, for helping to facilitate this visit, and most importantly to Mrs. Naomi Grooms' neighbor, Mr. Lawrence Martin, Esq., who shares my love of all things Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, and all things of Black culture and intellectual thought. It was the historic Harlem Renaissance poster he published circa 1989 that began our discussions about Hurston; it was years later, in 2005 prior to Katrina, when we reunited and regained our long conversations and shared readings. It was then he shared with me the revelation about Mrs. Naomi Grooms, Zora Neale Hurston, and Belleville Court.

6. For this significant find in the Woods Directory, I am indebted to librarian Greg Osborne of the Louisiana Room at the downtown branch of the New Orleans Public Library. Mr. Osborne is a dedicated and energetic expert on the history and culture of New Orleans and is a remarkable resource himself; of course, his knowledge of the library's holdings are equally essential for anyone delving into this vast Louisiana past.

7. At the time of Hurston's residence in Old Algiers, Algiers was a bedroom community largely populated by the waiters, waitresses, educators, and especially musicians, merchant seaman, sailors, and railroad folk who could not afford to live in downtown New Orleans, according to Lawrence Martin, Esq.

8. Sadly, Mrs. Naomi Grooms passed away from this life in January 2011 at 94 years old. Mrs. Naomi Grooms will be missed by all who knew and love her. Thank you, Mrs. Grooms; this one's for you!


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_____. 2001. Introduction. In Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folktales from the Gulf States, ed. Carla Kaplan, pp xxi-xxxi. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001.

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Woods, Allen T. Woods Directory Being a Colored Business, Professional, and Trades Directory of New Orleans, Louisiana.

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Mona Lisa Saloy is a folklorist teaching in the English Department at Dillard University in New Orleans., Louisiana. This article first appeared in Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 21, 2011.