On August 6, 1928, Zora Neale Hurston wrote a letter from 7 Bellville Court, Algiers, Louisiana, to Langston Hughes in which she writes "I have landed in the kingdom of Marie Laveau and expect to wear her crown someday” (Kaplan, 124). In Algiers, Hurston rented “a 3 room house in a splendid neighborhood from the point of view of collecting material” (Kaplan, 124). At this time, according to Mona Lisa Saloy, folklorist at Dillard University, “Algiers was a bedroom community largely populated by the waiters, waitresses, educators, and especially musicians, merchant seaman, sailors, and railroad folk who could not afford to live in downtown New Orleans.”
Most of the details about Hurston’s stay in Belleville Court, then the heart of the black community, comes from an interview in 2009 with Mrs. Naomi [Willis] Grooms, who was 12 years old when Hurston came to live in Algiers (Saloy). According to Mrs. Grooms, who was 92 at the time of the interview, “the house Hurston rented, and indeed all of Belleville Court, was owned by a "well-established Black land owner, a Mr. Joubert from the area’” (Grooms quoted in Saloy).
Although Hurston was friendly with all the children, she chose young Naomi to be her helper, sending the girl on errands to the Black-owned corner store on Belleville and Lemarc Streets, called Joe Lewis, “for foodstuffs (lots of bread, beans and rice).” Among her other tasks were “scrubbing the wide plank floors at Zora's house... and keeping the entire house clean.” Naomi’s was “to take no money from the nice educated lady who needed to research and write most of all” (Grooms quoted in Saloy). Hurston was welcomed to the neighborhood, and Grooms remembers that she “wrote furiously . . . pounding relentlessly on that typewriter; she was a sight working at home and writing day and night” (quoted in Saloy). Even so, she was very friendly and spent time chatting on porches, interacting with neighbors and children, “sharing an iced tea on occasion, passing the time while watching the night sky some evenings” (Grooms quoted in Saloy).
In the late 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston went back and forth across the Mississippi from New Orleans to Algiers. She also traveled to Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi, gathering the material, the stories that would become her book, Mules and Men (1935), which captures the authentic voices and documents the lives, culture, and experiences of the people she encountered (Saloy). The magnitude of this effort cannot be minimized; it is a testimony to Hurston’s commitment and ethnographic skills and a gift to be appreciated by the generations.