Since their creation after the Civil War, Historically Black Colleges and Universities have produced African American alumni that have contributed immensely to American society. Without these schools, there would be no Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, or Zora Neale Hurston. In particular, Howard University served as a breeding ground for “New Negro” intellectuals, thinkers, and artists. Within the walls of an early Howard University, students were privileged to study under the likes of James Weldon Johnson, Sterling Brown and Alain Locke. It was out of this environment which Hurston; one of the most prominent and successful writers of the Harlem Renaissance emerged.
In 2003, Valerie Boyd published an article in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education entitled, “Zora Neale Hurston: The Howard University Years.” I have uploaded some excerpts of that article for your reading pleasure below:
Zora Knew all about Howard’s reputation for scholastic excellence. She knew that it was for Negroes what Harvard was for whites, and that it was a gathering place for “Negro money, beauty, and prestige,” as she put it. She also had heard about the elegant clothes Howard students wore and the elite fraternities and sororities that held sway on campus. Zora believed Howard was out of her league, and said so. But her friends, believing otherwise, tamped down Zora’s doubts and stoked her ambition.
On December 12, 1918, listing 1663 Evergreen Avenue in Jacksonville as the address of her parent or guardian, Zora enrolled in the academy, where she took classes in history, Latin, English and physical geography. After finishing her prepatory coursework, Zora finally earned her high school diploma in May 1919 from Howard Academy. She went directly into college classes that fall.
At her first college assembly, Zora was moved by the stately music, the platform packed with distinguished faculty and the hundreds of students standing shoulder to shoulder with her. Misty-eyed, she whispered to the spirit of Howard University: “You have taken me in. I am a tiny bit of your greatness. I swear to you that I shall never make you ashamed of me.”
“Zora never let any grade slip below a C so grateful was she to be at Howard. Every time an assembly at the chapel closed with the singing of the alma mater, Zora was awash with pride: “My soul stood on tiptoe and stretched up to take in all that it meant,” she would remember.” “So I was careful to do my class work and be worthy to stand there under the shadow of the hovering spirit of Howard. I felt the ladder under my feet.”
“There were these three sororities,” explained one of Hurston’s Howard acquaintances, Ophela Settle Egypt. “The AKA’s (who really could dress beautifully), the Deltas (light skinned), and the Zetas (it didn’t matter how you looked as long as you had brains). I had enough brains to get into Zeta. Zora Neale Hurston was there and she was a Zeta.” Still, even among a group of women reputed to be brainy, Zora stood apart.
In the 1923 Howard University yearbook, Zora contributed a couple of tongue-in-cheek pieces: “A Chapter From the Book of Life” and “An Academic Nightmare.” She was listed as a member of the Stylus, Zeta Phi Beta, and the Howard Players- the campus theatrical company. “Zora’s greatest ambition,” the yearbook divulged, “is to establish herself in Greenwich Village where she may write stories and poems and live as an unrestrained Bohemian.”
After graduating from Howard, Hurston went on to become one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s affinity for Black Education and higher education, first indoctrinated at Howard, remained with her for the rest of her life. Hurston stood in adamant opposition to the Brown v. Board case, arguing: “The whole matter revolves around the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?… “Thems my sentiments and I am sticking by them. Growth from within. Ethical and cultural desegregation. It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association. That old white mare business can go racking down the road for all I care.”