In 1956 Hurston received the Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations in recognition of her achievements. The English Department at Bethune-Cookman College remains dedicated to preserving her cultural legacy.
Anthropological and folkloric fieldwork
Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. Based on her work in the South, sponsored from 1928 to 1932 by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist, Hurston wrote Mules and Men in 1935. She was doing research in lumber camps and commented on the practice of white men in power taking black women as sexual concubines, including having them bear children. This later was referred to as "paramour rights," based in the men's power under racial and related to practices during slavery times. The book also includes much folklore. She used this material as well in fictional treatment developed for her novels such as Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934).
In 1936 and 1937, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti for research, with support from the Guggenheim Foundation. She drew from this for her anthropological work, Tell My Horse (1938).
From October 1947 to February 1948, she lived in Honduras, at the north coastal town of Puerto Cortés. She had some hopes of locating either Mayan ruins or vestiges of an as yet undiscovered civilization. While in Puerto Cortés, she wrote much of Seraph on the Suwanee, set in Florida. Hurston expressed interest in the polyethnic nature of the population in the region (many, such as the Miskito Zambu and Garifuna, were of partial African ancestry and had developed creole cultures).
In 1948, Hurston was falsely accused of molesting a ten-year-old boy. Although the case was dismissed after Hurston presented evidence that she was in Honduras when the crime supposedly occurred in the U.S., her personal life was seriously disrupted by the scandal.
During her last decade, Hurston worked as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers. In the fall of 1952 she was contacted by Sam Nunn, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, to go to Florida to cover the murder trial of Ruby McCollum. The wealthy black married woman was charged with murdering a prominent white doctor and politician, also married, whom McCollum said had forced her to have sex and bear his child. Hurston recalled what she had seen of white male sexual dominance in the lumber camps in North Florida, and discussed it with Nunn. They both thought the case might be about such "paramour rights," and wanted to "expose it to a national audience."
Upon reaching Live Oak, Hurston was surprised not only by the gag order the judge in the trial placed on the defense, but by her inability to get residents in town to talk about the case; both blacks and whites were silent. She believed that might have been related to Dr. Adams' alleged involvement as well in Sam McCollum's gambling operation. Her articles were published by the newspaper during the trial. Ruby McCollum was convicted by an all-white, all-male jury, and sentenced to death. Hurston had a special assignment to write a serialized account, The Life Story of Ruby McCollum, over three months in 1953 in the newspaper. Her part was ended abruptly when she and Nunn disagreed about her pay, and she left.
Unable to pay independently to return for the appeal and second trial, she contacted journalist William Bradford Huie, with whom she had worked at The American Mercury, to try to interest him in the case. He covered the appeal and second trial, and also developed material from a background investigation. Hurston shared her material with him from the first trial, but he acknowledged her only briefly in his book, Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1956), which became a bestseller. Hurston celebrated that "McCollum’s testimony in her own defense marked the first time that a woman of African-American descent was allowed to testify as to the paternity of her child by a white man. Hurston firmly believed that Ruby McCollum’s testimony sounded the death toll of 'paramour rights' in the Segregationist South."
Among other positions, Hurston later worked at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library at Patrick Air Force Base in 1957. She was fired for being "too well-educated" for her job.
She moved to Fort Pierce. Taking jobs where she could find them, she worked as a substitute teacher and as a maid.
During a period of financial and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973. Novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried, and decided to mark it as hers.
After Hurston died her papers were ordered to be burned. A law officer and friend, Patrick DuVal, passing by the house where she had lived, stopped and put out the fire, thus saving an invaluable collection of literary documents for posterity. The nucleus of this collection was given to the University of Florida libraries in 1961 by Mrs. Marjorie Silver, friend and neighbor of Hurston. Other materials were donated in 1970 and 1971 by Frances Grover, daughter of E. O. Grover, a Rollins College professor and long-time friend of Hurston's. In 1979 Stetson Kennedy of Jacksonville, who knew Hurston through his work with the Federal Writers Project, added additional papers. [(Zora Neal Hurston Papers, University of Florida Smathers Libraries, August 2008)]