The college was known as an oasis of progressive thought in the Deep South. But when the folklorist sought to stage a musical production on campus about African American life, no one knew what to expect.
In the spring of 1932, Zora Neale Hurston visited a Winter Park bookstore to ask for advice about publishing a manuscript. She had recently returned to nearby Eatonville — which she would later refer to as her “native village”— from New York City to shape her extensive notes on Southern folklore into what would become Mules and Men.
H.S. Thompson, owner of The Bookery, suggested she contact Edwin Osgood Grover, who had spent 30 years in the publishing industry in Boston, New York and Chicago. Grover now held the curious title “Professor of Books” at Rollins College.
Hurston’s letter to Grover would not only begin a long friendship with him and the college, but it also would help resurrect her flagging literary career.
The folklorist’s return to Eatonville had been a strategic retreat in the face of personal, economic and professional crises. A number of her friendships, most notably with poet Langston Hughes, had proved unable to bear the weight of her strong personality.
With the community of writers, artists and intellectuals who formed the Harlem Renaissance dispersed by the Great Depression, Hurston had found a wealthy patron to support her field research in the South and the Bahamas. That relationship was now coming to an end, and, according to a brief, unpublished memoir by Grover, the resulting manuscript “was in the hands of a typist in Philadelphia, but [Hurston] didn’t have money to pay for getting it out of hock.”
In an early letter to Grover, Hurston wrote, “I feel that the real Negro theater is yet to be born and I don’t see why it should not first see the light of day in Eatonville. I have lots of material prepared to this end and would love to work it out with the help of someone who knows a lot that I don’t.”
Hurston’s interests in folklore and theater had come together in 1926 when she discussed with Hughes the possibility of an opera about black folk life. Although their collaboration, Mule Bone, was never produced or published in its entirety, Hurston was undaunted. Her belief that the stage was the perfect medium to express black culture led to frustrating experiences working on revues like Fast and Furious and the unfortunately titled Jungle Scandals.
Transcending these exploitative efforts was The Great Day, a folk opera based on her research. Premiering in New York at the John Golden Theater on Jan. 10, 1932, the play met significant critical but little economic success, and Hurston returned to Florida.
Grover, accepting the role of academic patron — Hurston’s life at times seems to involve a succession of patrons — introduced her to Robert Wunsch, a young theater director at Rollins who had been developing parallel ideas.
Wunsch had come to the college from the University of North Carolina, where he had roomed briefly with novelist Thomas Wolfe. He was one of many young artists attracted to the Winter Park campus because of its reputation for innovative programs. Sinclair Lewis, in fact, had praised Rollins in his 1930 Nobel Prize acceptance speech for the college’s “interest in contemporary creative writing.”
Because Wunsch had been searching for ways to develop among his students “a genuine interest in American folk material,” the possibility of working with Hurston offered both a source of material and a contact with the community. His excitement is apparent in a letter he wrote in October 1932 to Rollins president Hamilton Holt:
I have set as my objective for the year the breaking of the ground, as it were: to make the students sensitive to the lyric beauty of swamp and citrus grove, sense the pageantry of the Ponce de Leon explorations, find the drama in the life of fisherfolk and sponge divers and cowboys, sense the tragedy and comedy of the boom days, revivify the old days of the missions and fortresses—in a word, to get the students to “dip their nets where they are.” I can think of no better way to introduce the students to the honest-to-the-soil material at their own doorsteps than to present to them in a program of folk songs and dancers a group of Eatonville Negroes, headed by Zora Hurston. Zora, a national authority on Negro ways, has won the enviable place for herself in American dramatics.
Wunsh’s proposal came at a difficult time for both Rollins and its president. For the past decade, it had been undergoing a transformation that would turn a small, failing college into a nationally recognized and modern institution. The impetus for this change was the ascendancy of Holt to its presidency in 1925.
Formerly editor of The Independent, a prominent and influential magazine, Holt was active in progressive politics and brought with him to Rollins not only a national reputation but also a liberal outlook. A college ripe for change had found itself a reformist president.
Following the progressive education movement, Holt rejected lecture and recitation. Instead, he proposed an approach to learning based upon his experience in the Independent’s editorial offices. Classrooms, he believed, ought to resemble workrooms where apprentices worked closely and interacted with master teachers.
With the help of his faculty, Holt immediately instituted what he called the Conference Plan. Under the plan, classes would be arranged in two-hour blocks, and professors designed new courses to allow students to work and study under their supervision, with all materials available in the classroom and all instruction provided through interpersonal interaction.
Within a few years, the Conference Plan well established, Holt turned his attention to curriculum reforms to match his structural transformations. He called upon the progressive education movement’s foremost theoretician, John Dewey, to head a conference at Rollins. Held in January 1931, the conference brought together the movement’s leading practitioners and successfully established a coherent set of principles for college curricula.
By the following year, however, Rollins was facing a crisis that was far more practical. As the Depression cut deeply into the college’s resources, Holt asked his faculty to take a 30 percent cut in salary. A faculty committee questioned the need for the cut and, by implication, Holt’s stewardship.
At the same time, financial concerns were exacerbated by an ideological conflict between Holt and a group of faculty led by classics professor John Andrew Rice. Among its many differences of opinion with the president, this faction had begun challenging the effectiveness of the Conference Plan.
Since his arrival in this Southern town with its New England roots, Holt had seen himself as a lone progressive voice among Winter Park’s cautious and conservative populace, and he waged constant fights on behalf of controversial faculty members.
When economics professor Royal France became president of Florida’s Socialist Party, or when France invited Hurston to stay as a guest at his home, or when the Rollins faculty lobbied the state legislature to prevent the passage of a bill prohibiting the teaching of evolution, it fell to Holt to mollify the college’s neighbors.
Rice, however, proved too much for him. A popular teacher and leader of the college’s dissidents, Rice embraced a confrontational style that Holt abhorred. The variety of charges Holt leveled against Rice — ranging from insubordination to wearing only a jockstrap in the presence of visitors at the college beach house — indicate the depth of his anger, and he fired him at the end of the 1932-33 academic year.
When a committee from the American Association of University Professors investigated the firing, it concluded, in the slightly stilted language of official reports, that Holt’s charges “would in most American institutions of higher education not be regarded as grounds” for dismissal.
Despite this vindication, Rice and a group of supporters left Winter Park to start an experimental college. Not only did Wunsch suggest Black Mountain, N.C., as a potential location but he resigned in protest to join the academic expatriates. Black Mountain College would open the following year with Rice as rector. After he stepped down in 1939, Wunsch replaced him but was forced to resign six years later under a cloud of scandal.
But in the fall of 1932, Holt’s purge was several months in the future, and he was still hoping to find some ground for compromise with Rice and his supporters.
Wunsch, anxious to promote folk theater, had sought Holt’s permission to produce Hurston’s play at Rollins. The president replied with a prudently worded letter reflecting not only his personal style and his awareness of the economic and personnel crises he was facing, but also his sensitivity to the people of Winter Park.
His solution was to suggest — Holt rarely commanded — a set of guidelines that recognized the community’s sensibilities:
I see no reason why you should not put on in recreation hall the Negro folk evening under the inspiration of Zora Hurston, but I assume you will go over the thing enough to know that there will be nothing vulgar in it. Of course we cannot have Negroes in the audience unless there is a separate place segregated for them, and I think that would be unwise. I do not think I would advertise it very much outside our own faculty and students, but I may be wrong about this.
With this cautious support, Wunsch could begin his collaboration with Hurston. In the middle of November, she spoke to one of his English classes about her life and research. After discussing her background, she explained to the students her dissatisfaction with John Golden’s production of The Great Day.
According to an account in the college newspaper, the Sandspur, she told the students that she wanted to work “with a cast of the true Negro type rather than the New Yorkized Negro [to develop] a production of enduring value.”
Hurston ended the class with stories, songs and a sermon from her research. Clearly overwhelmed by both the material and the lecturer —“pure poetry, full of poetic figures, utterly lovely”— the students won from her a promise to take them soon to a black church service in Orlando. Their rapturous response may account for the identification of Hurston’s hometown as “Edenville.”
For the rest of the year, Hurston and Wunsch worked on her “Negro folk evening.” The production, called From Sun to Sun, was essentially the same as The Great Day. It consisted largely of folk-dances and previously unpublished blues songs Hurston had heard in juke joints (“Shack Rouser,” “East Coast Blues”) and from men working on railroads, in sawmills and in phosphate mines (“Cold Rainy Day,” “Let the Deal Go Down”).
In deference to Holt’s concerns — and to spare his all-black cast from having to play to a segregated audience — Wunsch chose to stage the show off-campus at The Museum, a new experimental theater in the neighboring community of Fern Park.
The production, held Jan. 20, 1933, was so successful that it was repeated the following week, and on Feb. 11 came to Rollins for a command performance. As Holt had suggested, From Sun to Sun would be presented in the Recreation Hall rather than the college’s new Annie Russell Theatre. Blacks, other than those onstage, were not permitted to attend.
“Tickets to the general public — except Negroes,” wrote a frustrated Hurston to a friend in New York. “I tried to have the space set aside, but find that there I come up against solid rock.”
Although contemporary reviews reflect the values of their day and — like most appreciation of black art in the 1930s — emphasized the primitivism and rhythm of Hurston’s songs and stories, they recognized the undeniable power of the work.
A brief note in the Orlando Morning Sentinel concluded with a comment about the audience’s appreciation: “An audience of invited guests showed its unmistakable approval by calling the performers back repeatedly for encores.” The Winter Park Herald’s cultural column, “The Listening Post,” praised not only the achievement of the premiere, but the idea behind it:
This Negro folk-lore as presented in The Museum was perhaps the most dramatic entertainment that has been given in Winter Park. It gripped the audience with a sense of native rhythm and harmony which is hard to fully comprehend unless seen and felt. What the Negro has brought to America is too vital to be allowed to vanish from the earth. America needs this because its civilization, like Minerva, sprung full grown from the head of Europe, and so there is not the wealth of native folk-lore as in Europe, Asia, Africa, and other continents.
The Sandspur offered a similar rave, calling From Sun to Sun “one of the most effective productions given at the college this year.” After praising the work’s “unselfconscious spontaneity,” the review attempted to capture the spirit of the evening in describing the show’s climax:
The dancers, at first wary, as if feeling their ground, gradually became more and more heated, until one expected and hoped for an orgy. The rhythm pressing harder and harder into one’s very being, the seductive movements of the gaily clad bodies, the shining eyes in their dark faces, brought thunderous applause and continuous demands for more.
The only discordant note came from Winter Park Herald columnist Will M. Traer. In his column, “Some Observations,” he responded to the Herald’s review with the kind of comments Holt and his faculty regarded as too typical of their neighbors:
I note mention in “The Listening Post” of Zora Hurston’s effort to advance Negro music and dramatic art. Something very wonderful along the line can no doubt be accomplished by those who know what they are doing. Without knowing anything about Zora Hurston’s work along this line, I want to express an opinion that to me the grand kind of Negro music is coming from a simple soul, both words and music. The most true-to-life Negro song that I have heard during later years is the “Blue Yodel” by Jimmie Rodgers. This song might not interest some but it draws a wonderful picture for me of a lazy, indolent Negro telling his troubles to the world.
But Traer’s disapproval, grounded in self-confessed ignorance — indeed, he apparently did not realize that Rodgers was, in fact, white — was a clear exception to the praise that From Sun to Sun gathered. The college community was so pleased with her work that in March, when the noted dancer Ruth St. Denis visited campus, Hurston “and her company of Negroes” were invited to offer a special half-hour performance.
Apparently the administration was still sensitive to local sensibilities, because, as The Sandspur reported, “The audience included only the directors of The Museum and several invited students and townspeople.”
Hurston’s involvement with the college also had a significant effect on her professional life outside Central Florida. Soon after working with her on From Sun to Sun, Wunsch read one of her short stories to a creative writing class and then sent it to Story magazine, which published it in August 1933.
After reading the piece, titled “The Gilded Six-Bits,” Bertram Lippincott wrote on behalf of his publishing house to ask if she was working on a novel. Never one to lose an opportunity, Hurston told Lippincott that she was, and immediately began writing Jonah’s Gourd Vine.
Her appreciation to Wunsch is apparent in the book’s distinctively worded and spelled dedication, a dedication that seems to recognize his courage in a number of difficult environments:
To Bob Wunsch
Who is one of those long-wingded angels
Right round the throne
Go gator and muddy the water.
By the time the book was published, Wunsch had spread his wings and soared to Black Mountain. Hurston remained fond of Rollins even after Holt’s purge of the Rice faction, and of Grover in particular. In November 1933, Grover wrote to her to pass on a request: “President Holt has asked me what has become of you, and whether you had more things to put on at Rollins this winter.”
Never short of inspiration or material, Hurston presented All De Live Long Day in Recreation Hall only two months later. Like From Sun to Sun, the play followed a group of black workers through their day. It was not, however, quite as well received in the college paper. Even the praise seems qualified by a reviewer who clearly had enjoyed her earlier effort:
It is felt that no criticism should be attempted. Presented humbly, as it was, with all the spontaneous enthusiasm and brilliance of natural artists, this play can arouse only appreciation and a curious exuberance in those who see it. To those who are familiar with the work of Zora Hurston, there was something disappointing in that all of the features so popular in last year’s production From Sun to Sun could not be included in this program. However, more indigenous material and new talent made All De Live Long Day the best thing of its kind — a most enlightening and worthwhile entertainment.
Hurston’s success at Rollins and the college’s imprimatur led to more productions of her work around the state, an invitation to teach at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, and eventually an offer to produce a revision of All De Live Long Day, which she titled Singing Steel, in Chicago.
She returned to the campus a final time, in April 1934, to bring a group of local singers to perform for the Women’s Club before taking them to the Fifth National Folk Festival in St. Louis. But she never forgot the college and its faculty’s role in her career.
When she published Moses, Man of Mountain in 1939, she dedicated it to Grover for his enduring support. He followed her successes, despaired at her setbacks in later years and, after learning that she had died, attempted to discover her burial place. As a memorial, he encouraged the University of Florida Library to develop a Hurston collection by donating to it his correspondence with her.
Hurston herself offered a fitting epilogue for her relationship with Rollins shortly after Dust Tracks on a Road was published in 1942. In the book, she mentioned the college and the faculty she remembered from the time they had helped resurrect her career. But she recognized that her book had not quite done justice to the time she spent there. She wrote to Holt to acknowledge her debt to the college more fully:
You know, I had a lot more about Rollins College and Winter Park in the original script, but my publishers did not like it. I wanted to show more awareness of what had happened to me at Winter Park, and my gratitude toward several people there, as well as some in New York. But it was cut out. Now, I look like a hog under an acorn tree guggling without ever looking up to see where the acorns came from.
The story did not end there, however. Sixty years later, in 1993, Hurston`s work finally played to a full, racially mixed house at the Annie Russell Theater as part of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of Arts and Humanities, originated in Eatonville to commemorate the folklorist who immortalized the town in her work. It was staged again the following year.
“We`re creating a moment in history, performing before a multicultural audience,” production assistant Harry Burney told the audience in 1993. “This play is to, for and about Zora`s people, and finally they are seeing it on the campus where it was first performed.”
Although blacks weren’t permitted to attend the 1933 performance, simply having the performance on campus was considered quite avante garde for the time, added Rita Bornstein, then the college’s president, during an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “The college was considered progressive. The professors were worldly; they cared about literature and good writing. Having it here at all made us different from other southern institutions.”
A version of this story originally appeared in a 1991 book, Zora in Florida, edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel. The original book was published by the University Press of Florida.