Carrying a cumbersome audio recorder that he called “the thing,” Stetson Kennedy traveled through rural backwoods, swamps, and small towns from north Florida to Key West, collecting oral histories, folktales, and work songs. He spoke with the diverse people of Florida including Cracker cowmen, Seminole Indians, Greek sponge divers, African American turpentine still workers, and Latin cigar rollers.
The result of Stetson Kennedy’s trek through Florida’s multicultural communities was the classic 1942 book Palmetto Country.
Born in Jacksonville in 1916, Stetson Kennedy traveled the world but always returned to Florida. He left his studies at the University of Florida in 1937 to join the Works Progress Administration’s Florida Writers Project, and was soon named the head of the unit on folklore, oral history, and socio-ethnic studies. During this period he was the supervisor of writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who also collected material for the WPA.
Stetson Kennedy’s work helped to establish the collection of oral history as a valid method of historical research among twentieth century historians. In a 2009 interview, Kennedy reflected on his role as an early oral historian: “I am a great believer in oral history because [of what] I call…the ‘Dictatorship of the Footnote.’ The academicians are quoting each other instead of going out and getting first-hand primary source material. And oral history, of course, is [the perspective of] a participant and a witness, at least, and seeing it with all their sensory organs, and for that reason it has more validity from my point of view.”
While collecting oral histories in Florida’s diverse communities, Stetson Kennedy was particularly moved by the plight of African Americans suffering under the state’s restrictive “Black Codes” and the South’s tradition of “Jim Crow” laws. A social activist as well as an author, Kennedy risked his life by infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and exposing their secrets. Using the name John Perkins, Stetson Kennedy was able to gather information that helped lead to the incarceration of a number of domestic terrorists. These experiences led to the 1954 book I Rode With the Klan, which was later republished under the title The Klan Unmasked.
Much has been made of Kennedy’s creative choice in The Klan Unmasked to blend information obtained by another KKK infiltrator with his own experiences, presenting them with one narrative voice. The accuracy of the information in his book cannot be effectively challenged, just the style in which the facts are presented.
In 2009, Kennedy recalled his covert study of the KKK: “I first infiltrated during the war, when the Klan was afraid that President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt might prosecute them under the War Powers Act. So they didn’t put on their robes, and they changed their names to various things like American Shores Patrol and American Gentile Army, and things like that, so that’s how it all began. And, yes, it was exciting, to put it mildly. When I went overseas some years later, I thought I’d get away from my nightmares, you know, of being caught. But in Paris, it was raining frequently, and the French traffic cops wore white rubber raincoats with capes and hoods, and their hand signals were very much like the Klan signals, so I kept on having nightmares.”
Stetson Kennedy continued working until his death in 2011, at the age of 94. His last book, The Florida Slave, was published posthumously. He wrote eight books, and his work as an author, activist, and folklorist has been deservedly well recognized. Kennedy received the Florida Heritage Award, the Florida Governor’s Heartland Award, the NAACP Freedom Award, the Florida Historical Society’s Dorothy Dodd Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was inducted into the Florida Artist’s Hall of Fame.