By Katherine Hamilton | email@example.com
Johnnie Pasco likes to sit on her creaky wooden porch with a cool drink and watch the cars go by on West King Street.
“I don’t have transportation to go nowhere so [the traffic] keeps me a lot of company… ,” Pasco said. “— Like looking at the T.V.”
Pasco, 96, sat with her daughter, Pury Stephens, on the front porch of the historic Zora Neale Hurston house – Pasco’s home of over 30 years – waiting for the fumigating company to arrive after years of living with termites on Oct. 12, 2018.
Named a National Historic Landmark in 2003 by St. Johns County and the Florida Department of State, the house – which belonged to the world famous black, female author, Zora Neale Hurston, whose most notable work, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, is taught at schools around the country and whose manuscript of “Barracoon” documenting the story of the last black cargo made the New York Times best seller list 58 years after her death – receives no help from the county towards preservation.
That’s where Flagler College English professor, Dr. Darien Andreu stepped in.
“Here’s literary history, and it has almost disappeared on several occasions. Mrs. Pasco is very modest about her efforts to save it … I mean the dollar store could’ve gone in here, and then this would’ve been lost forever,” Andreu said. “Here’s where Hurston walked, where Hurston wrote, and we have a chance to have a writer’s home here in St. Augustine. The history has been dug out and identified, and now we need to take it forward and make sure it doesn’t disappear.”
Andreu started a GoFundMe page in August 2018 and raised $1,800 within two weeks of creating the page. With only $1,000 more to raise, she then appealed to the Citizens for the Preservation of St. Augustine (CPSA), and they agreed to donate the rest for fumigation.
“Mrs. Pasco has done her part all these years,” Andreu said. “It’s time for other people to do their parts. I get the benefit of teaching Hurston’s work every semester, and I’m not going to try to pay it forward? I have an obligation to do this.”
Hurston has special significance to Andreu; she married her husband in the parking lot where the old courthouse used to be – where Hurston married her first husband, Herbert Sheen in 1927.
“It took him a few years to talk me into it,” Andreu said laughing. “Like why would I want to do that? There’s a chain link fence there. It’s asphalt. I mean there was construction going on. There were orange cones. But, oh, he was so happy, and actually I was too.”
Hurston, a 1920s Harlem Renaissance era writer, is considered by many to be one of the first people to bring light to African American folklore. She narrated her novels with different dialects to portray the culture of the time – using the typical African American dialect in her work, specifically “Barracoon”, which led to its initial rejection. She was also an outspoken woman living in the Jim Crow Era.
And the St. Augustine home where she rented a room is one of the last homes she lived in left standing.“I guess by living here – that’s why [the house] is alive. If nobody was living here, it would’ve been gone,” Pasco said.
Many people and institutions have tried to buy Pasco out of her home over the years – since the widespread success of “Barracoon,” new offers have been coming every week.
“If sell it, where am I going to stay? I won’t have nowhere to stay,” she chuckled.
Andreu’s husband and retired St. Augustine historian, David Nolan, knew Hurston lived in St. Augustine before he moved to the town. In 1977, the first research he ever did at the St. Johns County Courthouse was to find Hurston’s 1927 marriage license, and his research grew from there.
“They were going to give [the house] to the fire department to do a controlled burn, you know, to train firemen in the early 1990s … but the house is connected to the main power line into St. Augustine,” Nolan said. “Some of my fellow historians said that’s not real history, but I said yes, it is.”
The attempt to sell the house to the fire department was only one effort of many to erase the Hurston house from local history – Nolan noted that black history does not receive nearly the attention it deserves.
“St. Augustine was one of the great battle fields of the Civil Rights movement, and the same people who opposed the Civil Rights movement also control historic preservation in St. Augustine,” Nolan said. “They were not interested in black history, so they pumped all the money into the tourist trap area on St. George Street and ignored the rest of the city and particularly the historic black parts of the city. It’s a shame for which the future will curse us.”
Hurston’s upstairs room has definitely been ignored; it has never been renovated and is now unsafe for entry.
Pasco’s daughter, Pury Stephens, participated in the Civil Rights protests in St. Augustine when she was younger before moving to New York for 40 years and eventually returning. But she said she isn’t surprised at how far behind St. Augustine is concerning race relations.
“Down the street was a Walgreens; we would picket there. Woolworth’s Five and Dime – well it’s no longer there, but the guy that was the manager said – he said he would be getting his orders to either desegregate or close it down,” Stephens said. “They’ve made a lot of changes, but they still have a long ways to go. There’s still nothing here for really young people.”
For her, preserving the Hurston legacy is about more than just a house – it’s about being reminded of those in the black community who sacrificed greatly for equality.
“[Young people] have access to [black history] but do they utilize it? A lot of them don’t,” Stephens said. “You’ve got people who say, ‘Well if it doesn’t affect me than I ain’t going to get involved.’ Well if everybody stands back and says they won’t get involved, then where would we be? You’ve got to take that chance.”