Many gather in tribute to Stetson Kennedy, Florida folklore


Scott Raimondo and Jean Lockwood talk about Raimondo's St. Augustine paintings during the Stetson Kennedy Folklife Festival & Floridiana Show at the Matheson Museum on May 11, 2013, in Gainesville, Fla.

Elizabeth Hamilton/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 5:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 5:55 p.m.

When Stephanie Pastore explained to those at the Matheson Museum on Saturday that they would be seeing a swamp cabbage harvest, she meant they'd get to witness the dense crown of a sabal palm get hacked apart.

People fanned themselves while Michael Adler, using a machete, cut through the tough palmetto skin to reach the heart of the tree. Bits of organic shrapnel landed at the audience's feet while the heart's edible flesh was served from a jar, cut up like hors d'oeuvres.

Pastore, a technician at the Matheson, explained to onlookers that the demonstration was a peek into Florida's past, when swamp cabbage harvests were a community endeavor. The presentation was one of many meant to preserve Florida history and teach the community about folk culture at Saturday's Stetson Kennedy Folklife Festival & Floridiana Show.

The late Stetson Kennedy was one of America's pioneering folklorists, as well as an author, environmentalist and human rights activist. He is best known for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and making its secrets and rituals known to the world.

Alicia Antone, executive director of the museum, said she wanted to instill in festival-goers Kennedy's values by sharing Florida folklore from before the mid-20th century through the lens of his life.

"Some of the tenants that were very important to Mr. Kennedy were sustainability and … caring about each other in terms of learning about all of our cultural differences," she said.

Sandra Parks, the late Kennedy's wife, said she wanted to share as much of Kennedy's legacy and impact. She pointed to a photo of Kennedy mounted behind the folk musicians playing on the porch of the historical Matheson House.

"That was 10 months before he died," she said. "That's the Lincoln Memorial in the background. He was there for One Nation Working Together, which was a labor and civil rights lovefest. And there he is, with all these mobs of people around him. So the message is he lived long and strong and was going right to the end."

Parks and the Stetson Kennedy foundation presented artist Ernest Lee with the Stetson Kennedy Mother Earth & Fellow Man Foundation Award for thoughtfully depicting the African-American experience during the mid-20th century. The award is given to artists who portray the three things that Kennedy gave his life to: environmental stewardship, preservation of traditional cultures, and human and civil rights.

"For many people today, you'd be inclined to believe that the African-American experience was one of oppression and dissatisfaction and discouragement." Parks went on to say. "And when you look at Ernest's paintings, you see that African-American life was rich and funny and wise."

"This is a high point in my career," Lee said about receiving the award. "Stetson was such a great person — for the foundation to choose me for this reward is unbelievable."

Lee was one of the many artists and vendors who set up tables behind the museum to sell their work. While new folk art was being sold outside, inside the museum people could view historical Floridian folk art.

Parks said she was grateful to the festival for bringing together those who knew Kennedy and studied his work.

"This is the most meaningful day for our family and for the foundation since his memorial," she said. "We as a kind of extended family are gathering here — we're just so grateful to the Matheson for making this available today.

At the same time, those who were new to Stetson Kennedy's life and contributions were able to appreciate his life work — preserving and diffusing folk culture — by enjoying contemporary art. While people wandered between the exhibit in the museum and the tables outside, musician Dale Crider sang original works about preserving the environment.

"And save this ol' sunshine state," he sang to the gathered crowd, while picking gingerly at his guitar. "We ask it all for the palm trees' sake."

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