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.
Inside Cora Crane’s brothel The Court. The Court was located at the southwest corner of Ward (Houston) and Davis streets in LaVilla. (State Archives of Florida)
Cora and Zora provoked strong feelings in other people. Cora’s reputation was well-known in Jacksonville related to her brothel business, and she wasn’t considered a respectable woman, especially by other women. Zora’s writing and politics ruffled feathers among many, including African-Americans, for her statements regarding segregation and her writing style. Arguably, Cora and Zora also drew attention simply because they weren’t traditional women of their day.
Both women ran into scandals during their lifetimes. Cora was still married to another man at the time of her relationship with Stephen Crane, encountered financial trouble associated with her properties, and endured a murder trial. Her husband Hammond McNeill shot and killed another man who he presumed to be Cora’s lover. Zora was falsely accused of molesting a ten year old developmentally disabled boy. These scandals contributed to further degradation of their reputations while they were alive.
Cora Crane is buried at Jacksonville’s Evergreen Cemetery (Ennis Davis, AICP)
Ultimately, both women died alone and underappreciated. Cora died at 45 after a stroke, in Pablo (Jacksonville) Beach, where she also operated a brothel. She had spent the last few years of her life primarily at Pablo Beach, often alone, not quite recovering from the murder scandal. After her death, her life and writing gained more attention as a story in its own right, and not just because of her affiliation with Stephen Crane.
Zora died at 69, also having suffered a stroke prior to death, in St. Lucie County. She was living in poverty and obscurity at the end of her life, with none of her books in print, working as a substitute teacher and maid. Her writing gained more acclaim and recognition after her death, is now well-known as required reading, and has been made into television and films. Her home in Fort Pierce is a National Historic Landmark.
Both women are buried in Florida. Cora is here in Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville, and Zora is at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce. Alice Walker, noted author, famously honored Zora’s unmarked resting place by having a marker placed in her memory.
Despite their lives ending at a time when both women were underrecognized, today their legacies live on and they have been properly acknowledged for their contributions to history, especially Zora. Both women have collections housed at major universities: Cora’s at Columbia, and Zora’s at the University of Florida. The University of Florida will be highlighting Zora’s collection from April 5-7 at libraries across Gainesville as part of Black Women’s History Month. These two trailblazing women associated with Jacksonville deserve more attention in local history and telling the diverse story of our community.
Guest article by Adrienne Burke, AICP, Esq. Adrienne is the associate director for the Nassau County Planning and Economic Opportunity Department, an attorney, and a former trustee for the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.