Stetson Kennedy

1988 Florida Folk Heritage Award

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A native Floridian, Stetson Kennedy was one of the first to devote his life to public folklore work and to exploring the rich traditional culture of Florida. Born in Jacksonville, as a teenager he began noting the traditional sayings of both Cracker and African American clients while collecting "dollar down and dollar a week" accounts for his father, a furniture merchant. Kennedy began his career as a writer while attending the University of Florida in Gainesville, though later pursued studies at the New College for Social Research in New York and at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, the catastrophic events of the pre-war years impelled Kennedy to leave the University of Florida to work for social change.

Kennedy initially spent a few years in Key West, during which he delved into Conch culture. In 1937, he was hired as a junior interviewer by the Florida Writers' Project. He produced the "Key West tour" section of Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, and compiled the "Inventory of Key West Conch and Cuban Folklore." The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) appointed Kennedy the director of their Folklore, Life History and Social/Ethnic Studies Units in December 1938, and he served in that capacity until 1942. Throughout his years with the FWP, Kennedy worked with such influential folklorists as Alan Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston. The project preserved thousands of Florida folksongs, tales, and legends, which are now available through the Library of Congress and Florida State Archives in Tallahassee.

In 1942, Kennedy's first book, Palmetto Country, appeared as a volume in the American Folkways Series. The book examined many aspects of traditional life, especially among Florida Crackers, African Americans, and Cuban Americans. Kennedy based the book primarily on previously unpublished materials from FWP files. During the 1940s, Kennedy published a variety of smaller essays on aspects of Florida folklife. Most recently, in 1995 he co-authored South Florida Folklife with Tina Bucuvalas and Peggy Bulger.

During his long career, Kennedy dedicated himself to many social causes, particularly the uglier side of racial politics in Florida and the South. In the 1930s he helped galvanize support among Florida's Cuban communities for the Spanish Republican cause. After World War II, his infiltration of the KKK and his subsequent writings on racism and human rights (The Klan UnmaskedSouthern ExposureJim Crow Guide, and After Appomattox: How the South Won the War) evidenced his activism. To avoid reprisals, Kennedy left Florida for several years and lived primarily in Paris. Since he was unable to find an American publisher for his books attacking the KKK and Jim Crow racial segregation, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre published them under his imprint. From 1965 to 1979, Kennedy worked as a Planning Director for the Jacksonville Office of Economic Opportunity—finding ways to fight poverty in his hometown. Even in his retirement, he still spent a great deal of time working as a social activist.

Stetson Kennedy was a founding member and president of the Florida Folklore Society and a recipient of the Florida Folk Heritage Award (1988). He was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2005.