Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942


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Stetson Kennedy Biography

Stetson Kennedy, one of the pioneer folklore collectors during the first half of the twentieth century, was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1916. As a teenager he began collecting Cracker and African-American folksay material while he was collecting "dollar down and dollar a week" accounts for his father, a furniture merchant. He left the University of Florida in 1937 to join the WPA Florida Writers' Project, and was soon, at the age of 21, put in charge of folklore, oral history, and ethnic studies.

Stetson Kennedy
enlarge image icon  Stetson Kennedy on Big Talbot Island. Photograph by Ivy Bigbee, © 2000, all rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Kennedy's first book, Palmetto Country, appeared in 1942 as a volume in the American Folkways Series edited by Erskine Caldwell. Of it, folklorist Alan Lomax has said, "I very much doubt that a better book about Florida folklife will ever be written." To which Kennedy's self-described "stud buddy" Woody Guthrie added, "gives me a better trip and taste and look and feel for Florida than I got in the forty-seven states I've actually been in body and tramped in boot."

In the aftermath of WWII Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and other racist/terrorist groups, and he subsequently authored a number of books dealing with human rights, including The Klan Unmasked, Southern Exposure, Jim Crow Guide, and After Appomattox: How the South Won the War, some of which have been widely translated into foreign languages.

A founding member and past president of the Florida Folklore Society, Kennedy is a recipient of the Florida Folk Heritage Award and the Florida Governor's Heartland Award. His contributions to the preservation and propagation of folk culture is the subject of a dissertation, "Stetson Kennedy: Applied Folklore and Cultural Advocacy" (University of Pennsylvania, 1992), by Peggy A. Bulger, who assumed the directorship of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 1999.