Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail Marker #8


Trail Marker #8

Backus House - 122 A.E. Backus Avenue

Zora Neale Hurston was a friend and guest of Fort Pierce native, A.E. "Bean" Backus, who painted Florida landscapes for over 50 years. Born in 1906, Bean was largely self-taught and painted what he saw around him - vivid sunsets, brightly colored flowers, lots of trees, and water. His work can be seen at the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery, 500 N. Indian River Drive. Bean died in 1990.

Both Bean and Zora loved to talk and inspire the neighborhood youth. It is said that Zora would often tell intriguing stories to the neighborhood children, and encourage them to accomplish their dreams. Bean and Zora both freely and happily "mixed" with people from all walks of life and all races, at a time in our history when few could claim to do so.

Bean often worked with aspiring young artists and encouraged Alfred Hair, who went on to help develop the nucleus of the Fort Pierce-based painters now referred to as "The Highwaymen." This loosely organized group of African American artists developed a technique of fast painting that vividly portrayed Florida's vanishing landscapes. They sold their paintings on the highways and byways all over the state, thus earning the group's contemporary nickname.

Most everyone that visited Bean Backus' home would hear lively music coming from the record player or from jamming jazz musicians. Zora Neale Hurston also loved jazz, and is said to have gone to hear jazz, trumpet and piano at the local jam sessions at Backus' house. Bean remembered that when Zora came to visit, "she told tales and slapped her large feet down for comic effect - she still had the ability to "make you laugh one minute and cry the next" (telephone conversation between A.E. Backus and Mary Lyons, August 9, 1989, quoted in Mary E. Lyons, Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston, 1990.) A master at collecting and telling stories, Zora must surely have enjoyed the lively and stimulating atmosphere at Beans house.

"Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural. There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, sees it from its own angle. So every man's spice-box seasons his own food."--Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)

Platts/Backus House

Backus House

Jamming with Bean, 1955

Backus Jam Session

Backus is seated in the back row, second from the left. Parties at the Backus house were inter-racial, intergenerational, and invariably included music and lots of talk.

Zora and her car, "Sassy Susie," in the 1920s

Zora's Car "Cherry"

Zora was gutsy for her time – few African American women would dare to travel alone in a car in the dangerous segregated South. But Zora had to drive a car in Florida in order to get to the lumber mills, turpentine camps, and mining towns filled with African American workers.

Bean and Zora both traveled to Central and South America, Haiti, and Jamaica, at different times for different reasons. Bean's record of his travels can be seen in his paintings. Zora's, of course, can be found flavoring her writing.

Zora was an English major at Barnard, but also studied anthropology at Columbia University under Dr. Franz Boas, widely considered the "Father of Modern American Anthropology." Field work for Dr. Boas led to her "other" rambling career as a folklorist.

Zora was able to obtain information that no one else could-or would-because of her willingness to travel to unknown and sometimes dangerous places, seek out strangers and live among them in their way, and patiently wait and listen. While still studying at Columbia University, Zora wrote a letter about her anthropology class to writer Fannie Hurst, in which she urged Fannie to consider studying anthropology, as it was "as full of things a writer could use as a dog is of fleas." Zora's love of a good story and self-confidence helped her track down the most fascinating details. And her talent as a writer enabled her to share these details in a way that still thrills readers today.