Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, and moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, in 1894. She later used Eatonville as the setting for many of her stories. It is now the site of the Zora! Festival, held each year in her honor.
In her early career, Hurston conducted anthropological and ethnographic research while a student at Barnard College and Columbia University. She had an interest in African-American and Caribbean folklore, and how these contributed to the community's identity.
She also wrote fiction about contemporary issues in the black community and became a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Her short satires, drawing from the African-American experience and racial division, were published in anthologies such as ''The New Negro'' and ''Fire!!'' After moving back to Florida, Hurston wrote and published her literary anthropology on African-American folklore in North Florida, ''Mules and Men'' (1935), and her first three novels: ''Jonah's Gourd Vine'' (1934); ''Their Eyes Were Watching God'' (1937); and ''Moses, Man of the Mountain'' (1939). Also published during this time was ''Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica'' (1938), documenting her research on rituals in Jamaica and Haiti.
Hurston's works concerned both the African-American experience and her struggles as an African-American woman. Her novels went relatively unrecognized by the literary world for decades. Interest was revived in 1975 after author Alice Walker published an article, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston", in the March issue of ''Ms.'' magazine that year. Hurston's manuscript ''Every Tongue Got to Confess'', a collection of folktales gathered in the 1920s, was published posthumously in 2001 after being discovered in the Smithsonian archives. Her nonfiction book ''Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"'', about the life of Cudjoe Lewis (Kossola), was published posthumously in 2018.