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Yuval Taylor | An excerpt from Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal | W. W. Norton & Company | March 2019 | 30 minutes (8,692 words)
Ornate and imposing, the century-old Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Passenger Terminal in downtown Mobile, Alabama, resembles a cross between a Venetian palace and a Spanish mission. Here, on St. Joseph Street, on July 23, 1927, one of the more fortuitous meetings in American literary history occurred, a chance incident that would seal the friendship of two of its most influential writers. “No sooner had I got off the train” from New Orleans, Langston wrote in The Big Sea, “than I ran into Zora Neale Hurston, walking intently down the main street. I didn’t know she was in the South [actually, he did, having received a letter from her in March, but he had no idea she was in Alabama], and she didn’t know I was either, so we were very glad to see each other.”
Zora was in town to interview Cudjo Lewis, purportedly the only person still living who had been born in Africa and enslaved in the United States. She then planned to drive back to New York, doing folklore research along the way. In late 1926, Franz Boas had recommended her to Carter Woodson, whose Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, together with Elsie Clews Parsons of the American Folklore Society, had decided to bankroll her to the tune of $1,400. With these funds, Zora had been gathering folklore in Florida all spring and summer. As the first Southern black to do this, her project was, even at this early stage, clearly of immense importance. It had, however, been frustrating. “I knew where the material was, all right,” she would later write. “But I went about asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, ‘Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?’ The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through their pores, looked at me and shook their heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around there. Maybe it was over in the next county. Why didn’t I try over there?”
Langston, meanwhile, had been touring the South for months, penniless as usual, making some public appearances and doing his own research. He read his poems at commencement for Nashville’s Fisk University in June; he visited refugees from the Mississippi flood in Baton Rouge; he strolled the streets alone in New Orleans, ducking into voodoo shops; he took a United Fruit boat to Havana and back; and his next stop was to be the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was his very first visit to the South.
When Zora invited him to join her expedition in her little old Nash coupe, nicknamed “Sassy Susie,” Langston happily accepted. (The car looked a lot like a Model T Ford, and could only seat two.) Langston adored the company of entertainers, and Zora was as entertaining as they came. Langston did not know how to drive, but Zora loved driving and didn’t mind a whit. They decided to make a real trip of it, “stopping on the way to pick up folk-songs, conjur [sic], and big old lies,” as Langston wrote. “Blind guitar players, conjur men, and former slaves were her quarry, small town jooks and plantation churches, her haunts. I knew it would be fun traveling with her. It was.”
The road trip provided the perfect opportunity for Zora and Langston to compare notes from their Southern travels, exchange ideas, and explore, along the back roads, the characteristics of African American culture that informed their greatest work. They had both kept meticulous records of songs, sayings, turns of phrase; they related their impressions of conjure wisdom, including the names of potions and powders; they delighted in the cultural riches of their Southern black brethren. Zora told Langston all about her terribly disappointing marriage in St. Augustine two months earlier to her old flame Herbert Sheen; perhaps she also told Langston that her second thoughts had begun the moment she said, “I do.” Langston told Zora all about his infatuation with their mutual wealthy white benefactress, Charlotte Osgood Mason, who insisted on being called “Godmother” by both of them. As they drew closer, the writers shared not only their knowledge, ideas, and feelings, but also their food and money. True traveling companions, they had the time of their lives.
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Misconceptions about the South of the 1920s come naturally to us. We imagine it strictly segregated; while that was true of schools, hotels, and practically everything to do with transportation, the races lived in much closer proximity to each other than in the North, and it was rare to find an all-white or all-black community. “Sundown towns,” where no black people were allowed after sundown, became increasingly common all over the United States between the end of Reconstruction and the end of segregation, but in the 1920s there weren’t yet many in the South. In general, black and white neighbors attended each others’ churches, played ball together, visited each others’ homes, and helped each other through crises of sickness and death — even as white southerners maintained political, social, and economic control over most black lives through lynchings, disenfranchisement, and unfair labor practices. We imagine black southerners as poor sharecroppers, chain-gang workers, and itinerant bluesmen, and certainly the disparity in income between the races was enormous — not to mention the constant threat of white-on-black violence. But the majority of black southerners, who comprised some eighty percent of the nation’s African American population, were not prisoners, fugitives, or roustabouts. They were churchgoing, upstanding citizens, as interested in their children’s education and the possibilities of economic advancement as any white person might be. In the 1930s, Zora would play a major role in canonizing black Southern folklore, and the picture she painted of rural Southern life would be reinforced by Hollywood’s image of Southern Negroes in rags, the rural focus of the Federal Works Progress Administration in the 1940s, the search for forgotten bluesmen in the 1950s, and the murders of civil rights workers in the 1960s. As a result of this focus on the rural and the downtrodden, we sometimes forget about the myriad black educators, businessmen, theatergoers, ministers, jazz musicians, doctors, dentists, carpenters, and skilled workers that filled Southern cities and towns.
Across the South, the summer of 1927 was marked by a growing recognition that the great exodus of African Americans to the North represented an economic threat that had to be dealt with. Alabama enacted a statute prohibiting the inducement of workers to leave the state “through grandiose promises of economic and social betterment”; Georgia already had a similar law on the books; and the labor commissioner of Louisiana warned of a crisis in the building trade in New Orleans if the exodus continued.
The Great Mississippi Flood, the most destructive river flood in US history, had begun the previous summer and lasted until August 1927, breaking over a hundred levees along the Mississippi River, which at one point stretched to sixty miles wide. It had displaced over 600,000 people in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana; 25,000 of them went to St. Louis alone, adding more than twenty-five percent to that city’s African American population. But the emigration was widespread all over, for the conditions in which many black people lived, especially in rural communities, were insupportable. They were essentially under mob rule, with constant threats of lynchings and whippings. The land they had gained at the end of the Civil War had been stolen, the hardships of sharecropping kept them impoverished, and peonage and prison farms effectively re-enslaved many of them.
Six years later, Zora would pen one of the most vivid descriptions of this great exodus in her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine:
Do what they would, the State, County and City all over the South could do little to halt the stampede. The cry of “Goin’ Nawth” hung over the land like the wail over Egypt at the death of the first-born. . . . Railroads, hardroads, dirt roads, side roads, roads were in the minds of the black South and all roads led North.
Whereas in Egypt the coming of the locust made desolation, in the farming South the departure of the Negro laid waste the agricultural industry — crops rotted, houses careened crazily in their utter desertion, and grass grew up in streets.
Earlier in 1927, Langston had published some poems that took place in the South, poems like “Song for a Dark Girl,” about a lynching, and “Mulatto,” about the rape of a black woman by a white man. Yet his demonstrated awareness of the dangers of being black in this area of the country he’d never been to did not for a moment deter him from going there. To Zora, on the other hand, the South was her home, and conditions for Negroes in the North were hardly better. And both of them loved taking risks.
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Also, Zora had her gun, which she wore on a shoulder holster. There’s a picture of her taken in Mobile that summer, pistol under her left arm, hands on her wide, low-slung ammunition belt, head cocked under a wide-brimmed hat; if it weren’t for her white dress and stockings, she’d look like a Wild West gunslinger.
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Langston had jotted down a few observations in his pocket notebook on the train from New Orleans: “The palm trees / The pecan groves on both sides of Ocean Spring / The little boys with their derbies and box band[s].” When he got off the train in Mobile, it was either for a break or a pause between two trains on his way to Tuskegee, where he had made arrangements to visit the college. He had spent $13.34 on his ticket, the equivalent of about $175 today — the biggest single expense he noted for his trip.
Right after meeting Zora, Langston wrote, “we went to eat some fried fish and watermelon.” Watermelon is, of course, a food loaded with negative associations for African Americans, and Zora and Langston were aware of its connotations. But they rejected them. Zora’s biographer Valerie Boyd writes, “Once, at a ritzy interracial party in New York, Zora had angered some of her fellow New Negroes by going straight for the watermelon. They viewed its inclusion on the buffet as a test of sorts, almost an insult, and had collectively vowed to abstain from the forbidden fruit. ‘And leave all this good watermelon for the white folks?!’ Zora dissented.” As for Langston, he recorded buying watermelons for thirty to fifty cents each several times in the detailed expense notebook he kept on his trip. (Another repeated expense noted there was for cigarettes, fifteen cents a pack.)
After the watermelon, the two of them went to Dr. H. Roger Williams’s home, likely a two-story brick row house, where Zora had probably been staying, and met with the doctor and his daughter Lucy Ariel, “a talented pianist and poet.” Dr. Williams had opened, in 1901, the Live and Let Live Drug Store, the first black-owned drugstore in Mobile, in an 1891 row house right across fashionable Dauphin Street from his home in the heart of downtown. (The drugstore is now part of Wintzell’s Oyster House, and where Williams’s own house stood is now its gravel parking lot.) He had graduated from Meharry Medical School and was a published poet and one of Mobile’s best-regarded citizens. Lucy Ariel had just graduated with a degree in music from Fisk and her brilliant dialect poem “Northboun’” had tied for first prize in the 1926 Opportunity contest. It’s not known how Zora and Langston knew them, but they certainly moved in the same literary circles.
In his notebook that evening, Langston wrote, “Mobile July 23. / Zora Hurston / Mr. H. Roger Williams / ‘I’m a sojourner in truth since I got religion so I just calls ma self Sojourner Truth.’ / The slave walk, which came from hoeing and planting. / The ‘Big House’ explanation for Negro jealousy of those who come up. / Zora’s bare front. / The chicken seller.” I have to assume that the lines about Sojourner Truth and slavery came from conversations Langston was having with Zora. As for “Zora’s bare front,” I can draw no conclusions except that the sight must have provoked some feeling in him. That Zora might, even inadvertently, reveal her “bare front” to Langston does not seem out of character.
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Mobile was Alabama’s second largest city (after Birmingham), with a population of about 65,000. Founded as the capital of La Louisiane, it was colonized in turn by the French, the British, and the Spanish before becoming part of the United States in 1813; it retained a distinctive culture not unlike that of New Orleans (it was the first US city to feature a Mardi Gras carnival, and that of New Orleans was imported from Mobile). Because of its port, it had been an important slave-trading center; now it was a bustling, cosmopolitan city.
Cudjo Lewis, the reason for Zora’s presence in Mobile, was idealized at the time as the last true connection between Africa and America. (Zora later found an even older woman who had been on board with him.) The Clotilda was the last known slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States: it was secretly commissioned by a wealthy Mobile businessman and arrived in 1859, over fifty years after the United States had abolished the African slave trade. Lewis and his fellow shipmates were slaves only a few years. After the Civil War, they established an extensive community called Africatown a few miles north of Mobile, with shotgun shacks dispersed over a large wooded area. Unlike in Mobile, there were no sidewalks, paved roads, electricity, or gaslights. (Home to lumber mills from the time of its inception, the community has been continually plagued by industrial pollution, and even now its poverty is shocking. “We’re still burying most of our people between the age of 40 and 50 right now,” a resident stated recently.)
Cudjo’s house had no windows, so he left the door open in the summer. He grew sugarcane and clingstone peaches in his garden. Speaking in a thick West African accent, he was somewhat cagey about his past. Zora helped him sweep out the church he attended and drove him to Mobile to buy turnip seed. But she was unable to obtain sufficient information from her interviews to complete the kind of report Carter Woodson expected. So she padded her article with lengthy uncredited excerpts from the 1914 interviews with Lewis that Emma Langdon Roche had published in her book Historic Sketches of the Old South, and submitted the resulting piece to Woodson, likely with no intention of having it appear in print. Woodson, however, unaware of her plagiarism (the last seven pages were taken almost verbatim from Roche), published the report under Zora’s name as “Cudjo’s Own Story of the Last African Slaver” in the Journal of Negro History. Zora never told anyone what had happened, and it wasn’t until long after her death that her copying was discovered and revealed. Biographer Robert Hemenway believed that her plagiarism was a kind of subconscious academic suicide attempt, since Zora was at this point tired of being beholden to academic standards. Certainly if Woodson had discovered her source, it would have been the end of her academic career. Zora would, however, go back to interview Lewis again, much more successfully, later that year and the next, and would use those interviews as the basis for a book, Barracoon, completed in 1931 and finally published in 2018. In it, she heavily fictionalized her own experience, presenting her visit as having lasted from June to October, all under Godmother’s auspices. But Zora told Cudjo’s story faithfully, backing it up with copious research.
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The first road over Mobile Bay, a complicated multimillion-dollar project that included five bridges and a causeway, was completed in June 1927, just in time for Zora and Langston to cross it on their way to Montgomery, probably taking the roads now labeled US 90 and US 31. It should have been tremendously exciting to traverse that brand new series of spans, one of them an enormous vertical lift bridge, across the twenty-four-mile-wide bay. They then probably drove through such thick timberlands that the road resembled the bottom of a canyon. Perhaps they stopped in Brewton, with its brick storefronts and cast-iron balconies, or Castleberry, which even then was the strawberry capital of Alabama. But perhaps they motored right through them.
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Langston and Zora spent Saturday night in Montgomery. Langston wrote of the “Distance from station / The churches with yelling ministers” on Sunday morning. It’s possible that one of these churches was the Dexter Avenue Church, built in the 1880s very near the capitol, quite a distance from the station, where Martin Luther King Jr. would help kick off the civil rights movement in 1955.
Then they pushed on to Tuskegee. Booker T. Washington, a proponent of vocational training, had founded the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers in 1881. In addition to training teachers, the school taught a variety of agricultural and industrial trades. It did not teach liberal arts, political subjects, or any of the theoretical sciences. While white guests were put up in a spacious guesthouse, Langston and Zora stayed in a dormitory. Neither of them expressed any reservations about Tuskegee’s program at the time of this visit. In fact, Langston wrote a poem of praise for and remembrance of Washington, an anthem for Tuskegee called “Alabama Earth,” which was published on the cover of The Tuskegee Messenger the following summer. When Langston returned to Tuskegee in 1932, however, he responded with the poem “Red Flag on Tuskegee,” a lengthy and rousing call to Tuskegee students to join the Communist Party, and an explicit repudiation of Washington’s vision of black and white social life as “separate as the fingers” on a hand.
Tuskegee’s campus is reminiscent of Harvard’s — red brick, traditional, with the clean lines of academic American architecture; the primary architect, Robert R. Taylor, was the first black graduate of MIT, and the campus was built entirely by its students, who even fired the bricks. Situated on rolling hills, it’s picturesque, but not to a fault; the central quadrangle is especially impressive. In 1915 the campus had over a hundred fully equipped buildings (it now has about seventy-five).
Zora and Langston arrived on July 24. In his notebooks, Langston noted practically all the people he met with over the next few days, but it would be hard to tell exactly who several of them, mentioned by last name only, were. Some are identifiable, though: on the 25th, he saw Jessie Fauset, who had come from New York. Fauset, whom Langston once described as “my own brown goddess,” had been watching over Langston for years, publishing most of his greatest poems while unsuccessfully trying to steer him away from free verse, Lincoln University, and what she considered the baleful influence of Carl Van Vechten (she wanted him to go to Harvard and write more like Countee Cullen). She had even more or less propositioned him in a letter she wrote him when he was in Paris. She no longer worked at The Crisis, having had a bitter falling out with her boss and sometime lover W. E. B. Du Bois. Langston also met Mary Williams, the nurse in charge of the Tuskegee Institute Health Center, that day, and they had dinner that night and took a drive together the next day in Fauset’s company. On the 27th, Langston had lunch with Sadie Peterson, who had helped develop the African American collection at the New York Public Library in the early 1920s and then the library at the Veterans Administration hospital in Tuskegee; he had dinner at the house of Albon Holsey, personal secretary to Tuskegee’s president. He also received a check for $100 that day from Godmother, along with a letter. Mason expressed her joy that he was making a “pilgrimage through the South at the moment you extend your own field of freedom,” then asked him not to tell anyone in New York about his trip, but instead to use the material he was gathering later, when “the flame of it can burn away the debris that is so rampant” in the city. He replied with a long letter (now lost), detailing his travels.
On July 29, he wrote to Gwendolyn Bennett, who would publish an excerpt from his letter in Opportunity in September: “I am having the time of my life down here. Everybody’s fine to me and the South isn’t half bad. Tuskegee is wonderful. Jessie Fauset is here, Marie [sic] Peterson and gangs of delightful folks. . . . I am going to the country tomorrow for a while and then on to Georgia.”
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What Langston meant by “going to the country” was a journey with Tuskegee’s Movable School, or the Booker T. Washington Agricultural School on Wheels, an exemplar of rural outreach. The Movable School worked through county agents who would arrange stops throughout the area. Alabama was the only state that had one. It had been Washington’s idea, and had first operated using mules, then a Ford truck; by Langston’s time it was housed in a White Motor Company truck (the 1920s equivalent of a heavy-duty pickup). It carried a Delco-Light “electric plant” (a generator), motion picture projector, electric sewing machine, iron, churn, gasoline stove, tool chest, ax, shovel, fireless cooker (a wooden bucket with an inner metal pail surrounded by sawdust; it functioned like a modern crockpot when one put a heated brick or rock in it), and water cooler, along with volleyball equipment, flour, baking powder, sugar, pots, pans, and more. Langston left Tuskegee at 7 a.m. on July 30 with three teachers and arrived in Decatur, Alabama, near the Tennessee border, at 8:30 p.m.
The week was mainly spent in Berkley, about twelve miles from Huntsville. Langston was staying with a family of black landowners. They had a five-room house and a riverside farm with three mules where they grew mostly cotton, but also some corn, peanuts, pears, sweet potatoes, cane, and sorghum; they also kept pigs, cows, and chickens. The Parkers had ten children, who went barefoot most of the time, and who, for one week out of the year, attended the Movable School.
During that week, the big project for the men and boys was the construction of an outdoor toilet. They also cleared a yard and laid down a walk through it, and built a roof and a concrete base for a well. They learned how to use surveying equipment; care for, breed, and judge livestock; build a chicken house; and make whitewash. The women and girls, meanwhile, learned how to frame pictures, make rugs, care for and feed typhoid patients (with one girl playing the part of the sick woman and the others bathing her, feeding her, and cleaning her teeth), bake bread, raise egg-laying hens, store sweet potatoes, bathe babies, prepare salad, can beans and vegetables, and set tables.
The school’s aim was clearly to bring a bit more “civilization” to these country folk. Children were taught the importance of baths and cleanliness, and Langston spent a memorable afternoon delivering a lesson on “Great Men,” especially “Great Negroes,” to the boys. Most of them had never heard about “Great Negroes”; one knew about the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and one the boxer Jack Johnson, while others thought that Abraham Lincoln was black. One evening the school showed educational films, which attracted about a hundred and twenty spectators, most of whom had never seen a movie before. They cried, “Look a yonder” and shouted at every movement. The show ended with a lecture on sanitary toilets, flies, and their effect on health.
Langston participated as much as he could. He especially enjoyed working with the littler children, teaching them how to blow bubbles with spools, or swimming with them in the river. He also appreciated the local food, on which he kept meticulous notes. One breakfast consisted of ham, cornbread, buttermilk, and molasses; another of catfish, chicken, cornbread, applesauce, peach preserves, and sweet milk. Dinner was served at noon, and might comprise chicken, ham, cabbage, corn muffins, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, buttermilk, and custard pie; then again the menu might be rolls the girls had baked, chicken cooked in the fireless cooker, okra, stringbeans, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, apple cobbler, and iced tea. Supper was usually a bit lighter: ham, applesauce, preserved tomatoes, and hot biscuits; or chicken, biscuits, and sorghum. The meals each cost him between a quarter and forty cents, which was significantly cheaper than similar meals elsewhere during their trip.
Langston came back to Tuskegee on his own, stopping overnight in Montgomery, and arriving August 7. He found a note from Charlotte Mason: “How wide open the door of your being is — how I love for you this experience that you are going through now — rising with the sun in the back country of the Alabama hills! You will know, dear child, so much better what lies deeply hidden in your poetic soul and in the far reaches of your ancestral dreams.” Mason had somehow recognized that Langston was experiencing a sort of rebirth. Indeed, as he was leaving Berkley, Langston had written a few lines for a song to be sung at a 4-H Club concert in December: “Out of death and darkness going toward the sun — / The sun, the sun.” And he also wrote a beautiful poem then, which has never been published, and which gives a good impression of his emotional state:
There is no weakness here
But only strength
Bursting the grave asunder
There is no weakness here
But only strength
To smash iron bars.
O, here in Alabamy earth
The strength of stars.
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Langston and Zora stayed another week at Tuskegee, during which he had a long talk with Thomas Monroe Campbell, the first African American agricultural extension agent, the first manager of the Movable School, and, at the time, the supervisor of over four hundred black extension agents throughout the South. At some point, Langston also visited the pioneering black scientist George Washington Carver in his laboratory, a massive brick building on the edge of the campus. And on the morning of August 10 he gave a reading to a “rather mixed audience composed of school teachers attending summer school, faculty members of Tuskegee Institute and not a few visitors,” as the Tuskegee Messenger reported. The reading was part of Tuskegee’s summer session, which was for high school and junior college teachers; besides Jessie Fauset and Langston, Alain Locke and Benjamin Brawley had also participated that summer. Langston talked about how he became interested in poetry while in high school and how he always tried to write “of things within his experience.” He read a number of his poems, and described his travels in France and Africa. The audience “was captivated by his pleasing voice, his assured, unaffected manner and the sincerity and feeling which he put into his verse.”
What Zora did during those two weeks remains a mystery. She might have visited her birthplace, Notasulga, which is only six miles north of Tuskegee, but she probably remained in Tuskegee the rest of the time. She was most likely working on her Cudjo material. An undated note she wrote Langston reads, “Dear Langston — Finished work and got my check today. Woodson cut me a week. I thought I’d get pay for the month but he only paid me for two weeks. Have only $10000. Rather depressed. I hate that improperly born wretch. / Shall we drive, or shall I sell car? shall see you in five days at the outside. / Zora.” She probably sent it to him while he was in Berkley with the Movable School.
There are three photographs of Zora and Langston at Tuskegee. In one they’re with Jessie Fauset standing at the center of Tuskegee’s campus in front of Charles Keck’s statue Lifting the Veil of Ignorance, which shows Booker T. Washington uncloaking a newly freed slave. In another they stand in full sun, brightly lit, with a number of trees behind them. From left to right are Colonel Joseph Ward, vice-president of the VA Hospital in Tuskegee, in his World War I uniform; Langston in shirt sleeves and a loosened tie; Zora in a white dress with a long string of beads around her neck; an unidentified heavy, light-colored man with a bowtie; and a distinguished-looking young African American man — perhaps a student — with a much tighter tie than Langston’s. None of them smile, but they look comfortable. In the third, again in full sun, the two writers stand with Sadie Delaney, the librarian at the VA hospital, who wears a simple white dress, and two very elegantly dressed young African American men. Zora is wearing a different white dress in each of the photographs, but the same long string of beads; Langston wears the same jazzy tie in the two sunny photographs. These are the only photographs that exist of Langston and Zora together.
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When the two friends finally left Tuskegee on August 15, they crossed into Georgia. Langston wrote in his notebook, “Saw man driving goat cart in Columbus. Passed many gourds for bee-martins high on poles.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone driving a goat cart anywhere near Columbus today, and it couldn’t have been common in 1927 or else Langston wouldn’t have remarked on it. The gourds are practically the only things Langston wrote about in his notebooks that haven’t changed. (They are put up as houses for purple martins; Langston was mistaken about the bee-martins, another name for kingbirds.) Some poles sport as many as two dozen gourds arranged symmetrically; in other cases a line of half a dozen poles will sport one or two gourds each, put up haphazardly, like inverted Calder mobiles.
On August 20, the Chicago Defender, one of the main black newspapers of the era, ran an article, “Barbecue in Georgia,” on its editorial page. They reported that the white citizens of Talbot County had hosted an integrated barbecue the previous Sunday in order “to show that good feeling exists between the races, and that white people are their friends.” With thousands attending, one speaker there shouted, “‘We must stop this migration. . . . There will be no more lynching in this county, and no more in this state if we can help it. We have decided to remove all inequalities between the races; henceforth there shall be no more use of ‘nigger’ in this county if we have to build more jails to house those who violate this rule.’”
This utopian satire gives a good indication of how desperate the Great Migration had made the South. And coincidentally, Zora and Langston drove right through Talbot County on the day after this fictional barbecue. “Passed a town last night named Tallbottom,” Langston wrote to Van Vechten, deliberately misspelling Talbotton. “Maybe that’s where the Blackbottom started. Anyhow the Georgia Grind seems prevalent.” Langston was referring, jokingly, to two popular dances of the day.
Their next stop was Fort Valley, Georgia, where they visited Henry and Florence Hunt, who lived in a large, elegant white house next to the Fort Valley High and Industrial School, a high school and junior college which they ran (the house is still there on the campus of Fort Valley State University, and is now called the Anderson House). Henry Hunt, a light-skinned man with small glasses and a gray goatee, was one of the most important black educators in the South, “advancing” at Fort Valley “the vanguard of civilization on a front where the resistance has been most bitter,” as The Crisis would put it in 1930. An expert carpenter, who had helped build the state capitol building, he had come to Fort Valley High and Industrial School in 1904 with the idea of making it the equal of other black Southern schools like Hampton and Tuskegee. His wife Florence raised funds to build the area’s first infirmary, which treated both black and white patients. Unfortunately, it was summer break so the school wasn’t in session. Langston and Zora’s connection to the Hunts was their daughter Dorothy Hunt Harris, who was secretary to Charles S. Johnson and lived in Greenwich Village, where she had on occasion hosted her Harlem-based literary Salon.
The Peach Capital of Georgia (and also a major producer of pecans, with towering orchards just outside of town), Fort Valley hosted a Peach Blossom Festival every spring from 1922 to 1926, with 40,000 visitors descending upon the town of 4,000 people for musical performances, dancing, pageants, and barbecue; but no festival had taken place in 1927, as it had simply become too overwhelming for a town of that size. From Fort Valley, Langston and Zora sent a telegram to Van Vechten, inviting him to join them; Langston also posted a letter to him from there, telling him that the Hunts’ home was “marvelous.”
That night, as Langston related to Van Vechten, they drove out of town to a “backwoods church entertainment given by a magician. It closed with his playing on a large harp and singing the Lord’s Prayer in a very lively fashion. And his version began like this: / Our Father who art in heaven, / Hollywood be Thy name!” In a postscript, Langston added, “There are so many amusing things to do here and the Hunts are delightful.” And he outlined their plan for the next day: to visit the old Toomer plantation.
Jean Toomer’s 1923 Cane had been set in rural Georgia. His father had once been a slave on John Toomer’s small plantation not far from Fort Valley, and a number of his relatives still lived there. Jean Toomer had never actually been there himself, having grown up mostly in Washington, D.C. His account of Georgia in Cane is based on his three months in Sparta, more than eighty miles away, where he had been a substitute principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute.
The Toomer plantation was in Houston (pronounced house–ton) County, Georgia. I couldn’t locate it precisely, but on Toomer Road there I found an old C.M.E. (Christian Methodist Evangelical) church, set a little bit away from the road in the woods, white, with the windows all boarded up with plywood painted black, and no driveway, just driven-over grass. In the graveyard are seven Toomer graves, the oldest dating from the 1950s: they are the only stones painted white. The churchyard is surrounded by pine timber farms. The plantation was likely nearby.
Langston and Zora talked there with some of Toomer’s distant relatives, and according to his autobiography, Langston became enamored of an old hat that one of the men there wore, “a marvelous patchwork hat of felt, patched over and over with varicolored bits of leather, linoleum, canvas, and baize where the holes of time had worn through. The entire hat was wonderfully weather-stained and dirty. The old Negro looked like something out of Uncle Remus. Indeed like Uncle Remus himself.” Langston wanted that hat because it reminded him of “the quaint soul of labor in the Old South”; he then referred to some lines from Cane about “caroling softly souls of slavery” and “early dawn on the Georgia plum trees and sunlight in the cotton fields.” In the end, Zora paid the man three dollars for it, and Langston brought it back to New York.
Langston’s fondness for Uncle Remus and “the quaint soul of labor in the Old South” isn’t just retrograde, it echoes age-old white justifications for the horrors of slavery. Perhaps thirteen years after his trip he wanted to give an impression of it that would amuse and flatter his white readers. His writings of the 1920s are altogether different. Here’s how he described the same visit in his journal: “Homestead now occupied by Tom Buff (73 years old) [probably the man who sold him his hat] and his grandchildren. Old man knew Toomer well, aunt and cousin of Gene’s [sic] now living on place. Aunt (Fannie Coleman) looks like ghost of past; pale, dry, and white, — didn’t know Gene was writer.” (Jean Toomer was also fair-skinned, and would later refuse to identify as black.) “Cousin (Fred Toomer) much like Gene. Wife ill. House in midst of cotton fields and peach trees. Chickens running under house and two dogs alive with fleas. Pecan, and English walnut trees. Grape vines and brambles. A very deep, cloudy well. / Came back to town and went looking for a guitar player named Bugaboo but couldn’t find him.” The simple lyricism I find stunning.
The next day, August 17, Langston and Zora sent Van Vechten a postcard joking about the slowness of Zora’s car. (The top speed for the era was about 35–40 miles per hour; Sassy Susie likely chugged along at a more moderate pace.) It read, “We are charging home in a wheezy car and hope to be home for Xmas. We are being fed on watermelon, chicken, and the company of good things. Wish you were with us. Lovely people not spoiled by soap-suds and talcum.”
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Langston described their visit to the “famous conjur-man away off in the backwoods” at great length in his autobiography; Zora talked about it in a letter to Van Vechten; and Langston listed the “Herb Doctor’s routine” in his notebook. Apparently he was so popular that on the weekends his cabin yard would be filled with visitors, both black and white. But neither Langston nor Zora revealed his name or the town he lived nearest, only that one had to drive over red clay roads to reach him (these kinds of roads were common, but they had been driving mainly on gravel or chert roads), and that everyone they asked on the way knew him. They arrived in the early afternoon and were received by “a tall, red-skinned, middle-aged man. . . . There was nothing especially distinguished about the man either in appearance or personality. He was quiet and pleasantly serious and asked us, in a southern drawl, what our trouble was.” Zora told him a lie about a cousin of hers, and named Tom R. Smith as the one who placed the curse they wanted the herb doctor to lift. (Smith was a white New York friend of Van Vechten’s who had edited The Century magazine in the teens and was now editor in chief at the publisher Boni and Liveright.) Ten days later she explained to Van Vechten that they had nothing against Smith, “but we had to have a victim and since he is free[,] single, and childless we thought he was the best one to use. If he should turn up one day with his limbs all tied up in a knot don’t tell that we conjured him.” As Imani Mtendaji, an African American storyteller in Savannah, pointed out to me, “Zora and Langston had to conjure a white man; conjuring a black one would have been too risky.”
The conjurer read to them from chapter six of the Book of Tobit in his “huge apocryphal Bible,” including the passage that explains that “if a devil or an evil spirit trouble any,” smoke the heart and liver of a fish, “and the party shall be no more vexed.”
The conjur-man then “darkened the room, after having laid out various chalks and powders on a nearby table.” He took a piece of chalk and made white marks on Zora’s forehead and breast in the shape of a cross. Then he sprinkled water on them from a green bottle, anointed them with “Palm of Gilead,” “mumbled an incantation,” gave each of them a small rock, and touched the rocks with a lit match. They began to burn. He told them to make the sign of the cross with the stones, which he described as “Burning of hell fire and brimstone.” “After the stones had burned a while, he spoke in tongues, performed other simple rites behind our backs, and then raised the curtains and opened the door.” Zora paid him two dollars.
Zora, who had visited a lot of other conjure men, told Langston that this one “was a poor one without power, using tricks like the burning sulphur-stones to amaze and confound people.” They were both baffled as to why he was so well known in the area: apparently some of the doctors had been complaining that he’d robbed them of patients.
That day, Zora told Langston many things she’d picked up from her research. He jotted down some of them in his notebook: “A black woman so evil she sleeps with her fists doubled up”; “Threat: ‘I can make all four of yous strip buck naked and dance right here till sun down.’” Then she told him a how to cast a black-magic spell. “Take a black cat on a black night deep in the woods and boil him alive,” she said. To find the lucky bone, you throw all the bones in a stream and choose the one that floats upstream. With this bone, “you can give yourself to the devil. Put it in your mouth and you can disappear, become invisible.”
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They had found out while in Fort Valley that Bessie Smith was performing in Macon, and made sure to get there in time to see her. Langston was a devoted fan of the great blues singer, who became known as “The Empress of the Blues” in 1923 when her song “Down Hearted Blues” sold 760,000 copies in six months. He wrote a blues song for her in 1925, which he sent to Carl Van Vechten to give her; he had seen her perform several times; and he listened to her records probably more than those of any other musician. Famously foul-mouthed, violent, and frequently drunk, she was a powerful woman whom nobody messed with.
Langston had first met her backstage in Baltimore in 1926, where she told him about her summer traveling tent shows down South and how lucrative they were. She remembered the Van Vechtens but didn’t exactly appreciate Carl’s Vanity Fair article on the blues (which Langston had helped write), and the only thing that interested her in “the art of the blues” was the money to be made from it. Smith attended a few of Van Vechten’s parties; at one, she told a Metropolitan Opera diva, “Don’t let nobody tell you you can’t sing.” She was fond of telling the story of how, at a party he gave in 1928, she downed three shots of whiskey, performed a set of blues, and, when Van Vechten’s wife Fania Marinoff threw her arms around her and tried to kiss her goodbye, exclaimed, “Get the fuck away from me!” and threw her to the floor. As for Zora, she had not yet met Smith, but had accompanied Van Vechten to a Harlem performance Bessie gave the previous summer, and at some point may have corresponded with her.
Now Smith was appearing at Macon’s Douglass Theatre, built by African-American entrepreneur Charles H. Douglass in 1921, and one of the most important movie theaters and vaudeville halls in the area. The lobby was lush and polished, with a chain-link motif stenciled on the walls, and Zora and Langston, who paid fifty cents for their tickets, likely had good seats in the gloriously ornate auditorium with its gold-and-red-painted walls. The opening act was a vocal quintet called Philips and Darling; then Bessie strutted on stage with her accompanists, hollering her saucy blues. However, “You didn’t have to go near the theater to hear Bessie sing,” as Langston wrote. “You could hear her blocks away.”
After the show, the travelers and performers ended up staying at the same hotel together, and spent quite a bit of time hanging out. Among other things, Smith told them, “The trouble with white folks singing blues is that they can’t get low down enough.”
The hotel was almost certainly the Colonial, Macon’s only hotel for black patrons, another Douglass building; it stood right next to the theater and advertised “25 Neatly Furnished Rooms with Hot and Cold Baths.” (The theater has been beautifully restored; the hotel is no longer there.) With a population of 53,000 (two-thirds of them black), Macon was the fourth largest city in Georgia, and downtown was full of tall buildings; the Colonial was one.
Smith was accompanied by sixteen people on her Southern tent tour that summer, including Dinah Scott, a comedian who had directed a revue called Harlem Frolics; her brother and sister Clarence and Maud; and her husband and manager Jack Gee. She had just given tent shows in Athens and Atlanta, and would soon appear in Birmingham. She may not have brought her entire entourage with her to Macon, though, since this was a theater performance rather than a tent show.
In the day’s journal entry — it was August 17 — Langston also noted, “Hubbard drove in from Forsyth.” Was this William Hubbard, then sixty-two years old, who had founded, in Forsyth, twenty-five years earlier, Georgia’s first vocational school for African Americans? His son Samuel, who would soon become principal of that school? His son Maceo, who would wind up working for the US Department of Justice? His son Clifton, who would become an electrician in Philadelphia? Considering it was a twenty-four-mile trip, it was either someone who had met Langston before or who was rather anxious to do so. The Hubbards undoubtedly knew the Hunts well, and perhaps this Hubbard had visited the Hunts in Fort Valley at the same time as Langston and Zora, or perhaps the Hunts had told him about their visit and he wanted to meet them in person.
Zora and Langston were meeting a large number of African American educators; almost all of them were in what W. E. B. DuBois had called the “talented tenth,” the “best of this race,” “its exceptional men” and women. They were staying not in the traditionally black areas of the cities they visited, but instead in the homes (and hotels) of the black elite, which were located in the center. Interestingly, these were decidedly not the kinds of people Zora and Langston were writing about. Langston’s poems of the time focus on musicians, dancers, and low-wage workers, echoing blues lyrics about drunk women (“Ballad of Gin Mary”) and gambling men (“Crap Game”); Zora’s fiction and plays were mostly about relatively unsophisticated rural Southern black families and townspeople. There’s hardly an educator in the lot. Being college-educated themselves, Zora and Langston doubtless had great respect for teachers, but didn’t view them as suitable material for their creative efforts.
The next day, August 18, Zora and Langston went to “Southern railroad shops,” probably the Norfolk Southern Railway’s Brosnan Yard just outside Macon, accompanied by “Henry,” probably Henry Hunt. Zora and Langston sat in the driver’s seat of an old locomotive. But where they spent the next three days is a mystery. They spent seven dollars on car repairs; Langston heard a song that ran, in part, “Nobody wants me — I don’t even want ma self”; and they visited a chain gang, giving three dollars to some prisoners. By the 22nd they were in Statesboro, and went from there to Savannah, meeting, en route, a 103-year-old root doctor, whom they paid a dollar for their fortune. Unfortunately, neither of them described the encounter.
Savannah was then Georgia’s second largest city (after Atlanta), and boasted a thriving African American community not unlike Harlem’s, with plenty of speakeasies, cabarets, and venues for jazz and blues performances (one was even called the Harlem Club). But the nightlife didn’t interest our travelers as much as the folklife. When they arrived, they “met a little woman who was out shopping for a second-hand gun to ‘sting her husband up a bit.’ She told us where the turpentine workers and the dock workers hung out, and we got acquainted with some and had supper with them. We asked them to sing some songs, but the songs they sang we had heard before and they were not very good songs.” (Turpentine workers hacked the bark off pine trees, collected the resin, and distilled it to make a product with many industrial uses; they would prove an important source for Zora twelve years later, when she interviewed, for the Works Progress Administration, a large group of them being held in virtual slavery in Florida. She wrote a brief unpublished essay, “Turpentine,” about the experience.) They probably would have met these workers either on the eastern part of the riverbank or near Franklin Square, a green space dominated by First African Baptist Church, home of America’s oldest black congregation.
One of the men they met was called Colonel Pinkney. He had been sent to a chain gang for nine years and seven months at the age of fifteen for striking his wife, was then “paroled” to a white planter (farm owners often took black inmates out of prison and enslaved them for the remainder of their term or longer, a practice called peonage), and finally ran away.
Zora and Langston’s meetings with intellectuals and educators may have been supportive and convivial, but their encounters with blues singers, conjure men, turpentine workers, and chain-gang escapees were the ones that fed their imagination.
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After Savannah, Langston and Zora were intent on getting back to New York City, and spent little time exploring. They arrived in Charleston on August 24. Then, instead of going directly north to Cheraw, they went northwest to Columbia, where they had a puncture repaired on the 25th, and where, as Zora wrote to Van Vechten the next day, “Somehow all the back of my skirt got torn away, so that my little panties were panting right out in public. I suppose this accident will be classed as more tire trouble.” She added that the bottle of “Chinese whiskey” that Langston had bought for Carl in Cuba was “no longer among the living.” The reason for the detour was likely that they wanted to get on US 1 instead of navigating the smaller roads to Cheraw, which would have been rougher on the car. The US Highway System had been established in 1925 and the kinks ironed out in 1926: US 1 was less than a year old, though for almost all of its route it was simply the Atlantic Highway renamed. But since it was a major throughway, much of it paved, they trusted it. Almost as soon as they got on it, though, Zora got a five-dollar speeding ticket.
From Cheraw, they remained on Route 1 the rest of the way, rolling through the North Carolina towns of Rockingham, Southern Pines, and Raleigh, arriving in Richmond on the 27th, Baltimore on the 28th, Lincoln University and Philadelphia (where the car had some expensive brake work and where Langston bought a Vanity Fair) on the 29th, and New York (via ferry) on the 30th. Since leaving Tuskegee, they had put 1,128 miles on Sassy Susie, and spent over fifty dollars on gas, oil, repairs, parts, and speeding tickets.
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From the perspective of ninety years later, Zora and Langston’s Southern road trip seems a halcyon journey of bonhomie, adventure, creativity, discovery, and intellectual challenge. It was certainly an eye-opening experience for Langston, who had learned of the South primarily through books and through talking to others who had been there. What surprised him most was the happiness of its inhabitants: “Most of the Negroes seemed to be having a grand time and one couldn’t help but like them,” he wrote in his characteristically naive manner. I doubt that Zora, on the other hand, saw anything very different from what she’d already seen on her journeys. And the trip had also “worn [her] down,” as she later wrote: she only weighed 124 pounds by the end of it. For her, the grandest thing must have been cementing her friendship with Langston — and being “fed on the company of good things.”
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Selected from Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal by Yuval Taylor, Copyright © 2019 by Yuval Taylor. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Yuval Taylor, senior editor at Chicago Review Press, is the author of Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal and coauthor of Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop and Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. He has edited three volumes of African American slave narratives, and his writings have appeared in The Antioch Review, The Guardian, and other publications. He lives in Chicago.
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