200 Alabama Bicentennial

Celebrating Alabama’s 200th birthday2017 2018 2019

Tuskegee quilt exhibit inspired by literary legacy of Alabama author Zora Neale Hurston

Now through July 14, Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum will host “The Soul of Zora: A Literary Legacy through Quilts Exhibition” — an exhibit featuring nine quilts inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, an inaugural Alabama Writers Hall of Fame member.


The quilts are on loan from Marla A. Jackson, executive director of the African American Quilt Museum and Textile Academy Museum in Lawrence, Kansas. Each reflects the imagination and talent of nine contemporary American quilters who are committed to preserving this important art form. Inspired by Hurston’s use of southern vernacular, her ideas about love, and Janie’s quest for autonomy and freedom in her book “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937), these quilters pay homage to the writer who yet reminds us to “jump at de sun.”


Hurston, born in Notasulga, Alabama, to John Hurston, a formerly enslaved minister, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a school teacher, was a graduate of Barnard College. She completed her most well-known novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in seven weeks while in Haiti. Her travels took her far from the rural Alabama town of her birth, yet her semi-autobiographical work “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” (1934) recalls historical landmarks of Macon County, such as Tuskegee Institute and the creek, a natural border and life-source. Most recently, “Barracoon,” published posthumously in 2018, has attracted widespread acclaim. This compelling text provides an account based on Hurston’s interviews of Cudjo Lewis, who was taken to Alabama on the last slave ship to reach American waters.


In addition to her literary contributions as a Harlem Renaissance writer, she was also a folklorist and anthropologist. She was a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. and famously remarked in her 1928 essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” that “…I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes.... Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation…. No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”


“The Soul of Zora: A Literary Legacy through Quilts Exhibition” is co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and a grant from the Alabama Bicentennial Commission. Additional funding comes from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Tuskegee University’s College of Arts and Sciences. The university unveiled the exhibit on March 14 as part of the launch of its two-year National Endowment for the Humanities grant, “Literary Legacies of Macon County and Tuskegee Institute: Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph W. Ellison, and Albert Murray.” The grant, totaling nearly $100,000, was among 253 grants awarded by NEH in December 2018 to support digital projects, preserved collections, and humanities initiatives on college campuses.


The NEH-funded project, under the direction of Dr. Adaku Ankumah, a professor of English and chair of the Department of Communication, Modern Languages and Philosophy, will advance humanities education at Tuskegee University. Her efforts, and those of grant co-directors and fellow faculty Dr. Rhonda Collier and Dr. Zanice Bond, will connect current and future generations of students to these literary and cultural icons — each of whom is connected biographically and artistically to Macon County, Tuskegee University and HBCUs.


“By studying the works of and engaging with scholars knowledgeable about these pre-eminent authors who helped document the racial struggles of the 20th century, students will be able to understand and contextualize 21st century challenges in culture and society,” Ankumah noted.


In addition to course enhancements and faculty-student research, the “Literary Legacies” project also will include workshops for teachers and outreach programs for the community. It will also lead to the creation of a sustainable digital humanities site to disseminate historical documents, teaching materials, and cultural artifacts. And, it will leverage the resources of the Tuskegee University Library System, which includes the university’s archives and museums, as well as its recently established Arthur Murray collection, “Beyond Category,” which celebrates the work of the 1939 Tuskegee University graduate


The Legacy Museum, located on the Tuskegee University campus adjacent to John A. Kenney Hall, is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is free. For more information about this and other exhibits, as well as visiting the museum, call 334.727.8889, email legacymuseum@tuskegee.edu or visit www.tuskegee.edu/legacymuseum.