Zora Neale Hurston and the WPA in Florida
Zora Neale Hurston, the WPA and the Cross City Turpentine Camp
Lesson Plan for Grades 9-12
This lesson has been reviewed and approved by CPALMS.
Zora Neale Hurston is most often remembered as a gifted novelist with a knack for capturing the essence of the lives of rural Southerners, especially in Florida. She was also, however, a folklorist who helped the Federal Writers’ Project document the lives and traditions of African-Americans during the Great Depression. Hurston’s work has been instrumental in writing the history of African-American individuals and communities, and it serves as an excellent illustration of the New Deal in action.
Zora Neale Hurston came to work for the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in Florida in May of 1938 as a junior interviewer with the Federal Writers’ Project. At the time, Hurston was the only widely published author on the Florida payroll. She had already published Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In 1939, Hurston went to Cross City in Dixie County, Florida, to interview workers of the Aycock and Lindsay turpentine camp. Turpentine camps were isolated and known for their terrible working conditions and abuses. It was unusual for a writer to be allowed in to gather information. Hurston's essay, entitled "Turpentine," is one of the few firsthand accounts written about the lives of the turpentine workers. It traces her travels through the pine forests with an African-American “woods rider” named John McFarlin. Although Zora Neale Hurston made notes concerning some of the abuses that occurred in the camp, this essay focuses on the workday. Material from this research later appeared in her book Seraph on the Suwanee. Hurston's work on Florida’s turpentine camps is still considered authoritative.
Hurston was criticized by some of her contemporaries for not dealing with the harsh realities of racism in her writing. But her supporters saw her as celebrating the strength and culture of African-Americans in a way that almost no one else was doing at the time.
In this lesson, students will examine the essay, “Turpentine” as a primary source document using the document analysis worksheet from the National Archives.
- Analyze a primary source document.
- Determine the author’s purpose and point of view.
- “Turpentine” by Zora Neale Hurston.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote this essay during a trip to the Cross City turpentine camp for the WPA.
- Document Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives.
Part I: Introducing Content
- Activate prior knowledge.
- Ask students what they know about Zora Neale Hurston.
- Ask students what they know about the turpentine industry.
- Tell students that they are going to read an essay by Zora Neale Hurston.
- Tell students that Hurston wrote this essay after visiting the turpentine camps in Cross City Florida in August of 1939.
Part II: Primary Source Document Analysis
Have students read "Turpentine" by Zora Neale Hurston.
- Distribute copies of the document analysis worksheet. Have students work individually to complete the worksheet.
- Bring the class back together to discuss what they learned.
- What is this essay about? How do you know? (Students should provide examples from the essay.)
- How do you think Hurston felt about the people she was describing? What word choice or tone of voice did you notice?
(Students might notice that Zora Neale Hurston talks about individual turpentine workers, mentions them by name and describes their skills in positive terms, such as: “Leroy Heath is the champ puller.”)
- What was Hurston's point of view and purpose for writing the essay? (Students should cite examples from the text to support their conclusions.)
Next Generation Sunshine State Standards
SS.912.A.1.2: Utilize a variety of primary and secondary sources to identify author, historical significance, audience, and authenticity to understand a historical period.
SS.912.A.1.7: Describe various socio-cultural aspects of American life including arts, artifacts, literature, education, and publications.
SS.912.A.5.11: Examine causes, course, and consequences of the Great Depression and the New Deal.
SS.912.A.5.12: Examine key events and people in Florida history as they relate to United States history. Examples may include, but are not limited to, Rosewood, land boom, speculation, impact of climate and natural disasters on the end of the land boom, invention of modern air conditioning in 1929, Alfred DuPont, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson.
Stetson Kennedy's Introduction
From 1937 to 1942, Stetson Kennedy headed the Florida Writers' Project unit on folklore, oral history, and social-ethnic studies. Kennedy and Zora Neale Hurston worked together to capture the traditions, songs, tales, and anecdotes of the people of Florida. Kennedy's introduction to A Reference Guide to the Florida Folklore from the Federal WPA includes the story of the trip that he and Hurston took to the Cross City turpentine camp. His introduction mentions the essay she wrote and helps fit the piece in a larger context.
The sections titled Zora's Contributions and The Recording Expeditions discuss Zora Neale Hurston and the trip to the turpentine camp near Cross City. Students can use this material as a secondary source to gain additional information about the WPA, the Great Depression in Florida, the turpentine camps, and Hurston's role and contributions.
What does the background information from Kennedy's introduction tell us about the purpose and point of view of Hurston's essay? How did Hurston use rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose?
- SS.912.A.1.1: Describe the importance of historiography, which includes how historical knowledge is obtained and transmitted, when interpreting events in history.
- SS.912.A.1.2: Utilize a variety of primary and secondary sources to identify author, historical significance, audience, and authenticity to understand a historical period.
- SS.912.A.1.7: Describe various socio-cultural aspects of American life including arts, artifacts, literature, education, and publications.
- SS.912.A.5.11: Examine causes, course, and consequences of the Great Depression and the New Deal.
- SS.912.A.5.12: Examine key events and people in Florida history as they relate to United States history. Examples may include, but are not limited to, Rosewood, land boom, speculation, impact of climate and natural disasters on the end of the land boom, invention of modern air conditioning in 1929, Alfred DuPont, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson.
- LAFS.K12.R.2.6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
- LAFS.910.RI.2.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.
- LAFS.K12.R.3.9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
- LAFS.910.RH.2.6: Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
LAFS.910.RH.3.9: Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.