Zora Neale Hurston was born 7 January 1891 (remember that date) in Notasulga, Alabama. She was the fifth of eight children born to John and Lucy Potts Hurston. When Zora was still a small child, John Hurston packed up his family and moved them all to Eatonville, Florida, a community north of Orlando. Founded in 1887, Eatonville was the oldest incorporated black town in America. Hurston grew up in a community where black people were completely self-governed. Her teachers were black. The town government was black. There was no one around to make her feel marginalized or to limit the scope of her dreams. Hurston's childhood in this unique environment may have shaped her later views on race, which often veered sharply from those of her black peers who had spent their childhoods navigating a white-dominated, Jim Crow-era America. Writing of her hometown years later, Hurston described it as a "city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse." Hurston felt at home in Eatonville, and always maintained (non-factually) that she had been born there instead of the less-idealized Notasulga.
In 1904, when Hurston was 13, her mother Lucy died. Shortly afterwards her father remarried Mattie Moge, a young woman only six years older than Zora (and three years younger than her oldest sibling). Hurston and her new stepmother fought bitterly, sometimes exchanging blows. It only took a few years before Hurston had had enough. The teenager packed up and took to the road, working odd jobs to support herself.
By 1917 Hurston had moved to Baltimore, Maryland. She was eager to enroll at the public high school, but there was just one small problem: Hurston was by that time 26 years old, a few years too old to qualify for free public education. What Hurston did next would become a habit of hers over the years—she said what she needed to say to get what she wanted, even if it didn't exactly fit with the "facts." Hurston marched into the registrar's office and announced her date of birth as 1901, instantly axing the ten years that stood in the way of her education. Hurston enrolled in high school at "16." She stuck with this false birth date for the rest of her life.
Hurston completed high school graduation requirements in a single year, earning her diploma in 1918. She then went to work as a manicurist and waitress to earn cash for college. The next year, she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the nation's most prestigious black college. Within a year she had obtained her associate's degree. In 1921, Howard's literary magazine Stylus published her first short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea." Three years later another short story, "Drenched in Light," appeared in the journal Opportunity, launching Hurston's long career as a published author.
In 1925, two major developments marked a new phase in Hurston's literary and academic careers. The first was that she won second place in two categories in a literary contest sponsored by the journal Opportunity, earning her recognition among the black literary community and its patrons. The second was that she won a scholarship and transferred to New York City's Barnard College. At Barnard she met the prominent anthropologist Franz Boas, who became a mentor and a major influence on Hurston's own career. In 1926 Boas asked Hurston to go to Harlem to conduct field research on the black community there. Hurston—and Harlem — would never be the same.