The big story, of course, is the publication of “Barracoon” in May, almost 90 years after publishers rejected Zora Neale Hurston’s account of the man known as the last survivor of the last slave ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
That Cudjo Lewis remembered what it was like to be captured by other Africans and held in a barracoon, the holding pens for captives in West Africa. That the slave ship, Clotilda, arrived on the shores of Alabama illegally, decades after the United States outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That Hurston prodded the old man to tell his story in the late 1920s. These are the facts of “Barracoon, The Story of the Last Black Cargo.”
But one of the many stories behind the story involves a former Peoria educator who rediscovered a great-aunt after moving to Florida.
“It’s almost providential,” Lois Hurston Gaston said during a recent telephone interview. Born and raised in Chicago, Gaston never liked Florida’s hot, humid weather. “But it’s like I was supposed to be here, I was supposed to find family here, I was supposed to find Zora.”
In finding Zora, Gaston basically ended up co-owning the work of an icon. She is one of three trustees of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust, which represents Hurston’s beneficiaries and controls some of the most enduring works by the novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist best known for the 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The trustees are, as they describe themselves in “Barracoon’s” acknowledgements, “the custodians of Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy.”
Gaston is probably better known in Peoria as Lois Potts or Lois Morris. She taught in Peoria Public Schools then worked at Illinois Central College from 1971 to 1992, retiring as director of admissions and financial affairs. In Florida, Gaston served as president of the Ybor City Campus of Hillsborough Community College in Tampa from 1992 until her second retirement in 2006. Hurston’s oldest brother, Hezekiah Robert Hurston, was Gaston’s grandfather. Their father, Gaston’s great-grandfather, was a preacher and mayor of Eatonville, Fla., the country’s first all-black incorporated town. Gaston’s parents divorced when she was young. She grew up knowing little about her father’s side or the barrier-breaking great-aunt who celebrated Eatonville and the down-home ways and speech of “the Negro furthest down” in books, essays, plays and social science research during the 1920s and 1930s.
By the time Hurston died in 1960, she had been “in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots,” as she had written years earlier in her memoir. Her books were out of print, family ties frayed and her legacy lost until a new generation of black women writers went and began searching for the black women writers who came before them.
Hurston’s revival, widely credited to acclaimed writer Alice Walker, would only swing higher once Gaston arrived in Tampa, ironically not far from Eatonville. With writers, publishers and others clamoring to use Hurston’s work, Gaston was soon immersed in the technical ins-and-outs of intellectual property, literary agents and copyright law, all while trying to build up a community college campus.
Meanwhile, the manuscript of “Barracoon” was buried in archives housed at Howard University. Though a short version of “Barracoon” had appeared in a history journal, publishers refused to print the book unless Hurston changed Lewis’ dialect to something closer to standard English. Hurston called Lewis by his original name, Kossola. She refused to let go of the original poetry of his dialect.
Years later, as Hurston heirs and their agent sorted through what had been published and what hadn’t, the story stood out. Scholar Deborah Plant edited the book, Alice Walker wrote the forward.
“The story is timely,” said Gaston, who learned of the work in the 1990s from Hurston scholars. The effects of slavery are still evident, she added.
“One man can symbolize what it did, what it’s still doing to people.”
Africatown, the community the Clotilda Africans founded after Emancipation still exists, just outside Mobile, Ala. Hurston didn’t have children but her extended family brought her back into the family fold. “I can’t tell you what pride I feel,” Gaston said. “She got down to the essence of who we are and thank goodness she preserved it.”