Jacksonville's Remarkable Women: Cora & Zora
A tale of two Jacksonville women...Cora Crane and Zora Neale Hurston. These two remarkable women paint a picture of not only different lives in Jacksonville history, but unique and fascinating women’s history in general. Zora Neale Hurston, noted author, is more famous on the world scale than Cora Crane. Crane is largely known as the common law wife of Stephen Crane (author of the Red Badge of Courage) and proprietress of “sporting houses” (aka brothels) in LaVilla and Jacksonville Beach. But both women led incredibly rich lives, particularly during times when women’s roles were proscribed and freedoms limited. As the saying goes, a well-behaved woman never makes history.
Cora was born in Boston into a relatively elite, white, Northeastern family. Zora was born in Alabama, but grew up as a child in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated town in Florida founded by African-Americans. Despite very different backgrounds and life paths, Cora and Zora had more in common than might be imagined.
Travel and Living
The residence of John and Blanche Hurston in Jacksonville’s Eastside. Zora Neale Hurston lived here with her brother and sister-in-law during her teenage years. (Ennis Davis, AICP)
Both women traveled extensively for their time, and lived in a variety of locations across the world. Cora was born in Boston, lived as a child in San Francisco, and ultimately arrived in New York City. After Eatonville, Zora moved for most of her life as well, and also lived for a time in New York.
Zora and Cora’s travels didn’t end in the United States. Cora lived for quite some time in England, and traveled across Europe. Zora did work in and traveled to Honduras, Haiti, and Jamaica.
But both women also lived and worked in Jacksonville. Cora ran establishments in LaVilla, the Hotel de Dream at the southwest corner of Ashley and Hawk (Jefferson) Streets, and The Court, at the southwest corner of Houston and Davis Streets. Zora moved to Jacksonville for a time as a teenager, residing with her brother John on Evergreen Avenue. She returned in later years as part of her work with the Works Progress Administration. Cora and Zora’s time in Jacksonville overlapped from 1904-1910. It’s possible Zora knew of Cora’s establishments in LaVilla, given that this was also the era of LaVilla’s prominence as an African-American community.
A Polk County Historical Museum exhibit highlighting the works of Zora Neale Hurston. (Ennis Davis, AICP)
Perhaps the most surprising commonality to those not familiar with Cora’s story in particular is that both women were writers, including short stories, and pieces published in magazines/papers. Cora served as a war correspondent during the Greco-Turkish War in Greece when she traveled there with Stephen Crane. She is recognized as one of the early female war correspondents. She was also a contributor to magazines such as Smart Set and Harper’s Weekly, including during the time she was running her brothels in Jacksonville. Her obituary acknowledged both her role as proprietress of The Court and the fact that she was a “well-known writer of short stories” stating “[s]he was a brilliant woman and she had a light, snappy diction in her writing that classed her among the leading writers of the profession. Her works were read by thousands of appreciative readers.”
Zora is now widely recognized for her prolific writing. As a trained folklorist, she wrote studies of southern African-American cultural practices recorded in Mules and Men and cultural practices around voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica in Tell My Horse. She published an autobiography in 1942. As a fiction writer, she published several novels such as Their Eyes Were Watching God and also wrote plays. In the late 1930s, Zora was a part of the Florida division of the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project. She recorded stories, songs, history and traditions from African-American communities across the state. As part of this, she arranged a recording session at the Clara White Mission in Jacksonville featuring African-Americans telling stories or singing, and recorded 18 songs herself.
Stephen and Cora Crane in 1899. (State Archives of Florida)
In addition to their rhyming names, Cora and Zora have other personal details in common. Both were given four names at birth. Cora Ethel Eaton Howorth was born in 1868, and Zora Neal Lee Hurston (“e” on Neal was added later) was born in 1891.
Both women married multiple times, including to younger men. Cora married Thomas Murphy, Donald William Stewart, Stephen Crane (common law), and Hammond McNeill. Zora married Herbert Sheen, Albert Price, and James Howell Pitts. Albert Price was from a prominent Sugar Hill family in Jacksonville, and the couple were married in Fernandina Beach. Neither woman had children.