UF to become home to Stetson Kennedy's written legacy
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 21, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.
Famed author, folklorist and human rights advocate Stetson Kennedy will get a posthumous homecoming Tuesday as the University of Florida marks the acquisition of his papers and writings with a series of events on campus including a panel discussion of his legacy.
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
10 a.m. - Open House, Room 1A, George Smathers Library East
Noon - Reception, Room 1A, George Smathers Library East
2 p.m. - Film, “Soul of a People: Writing America's Story” a tribute to the Federal Writers Program Room 1A, George Smathers Library East
6 to 8 p.m. - Panel discussion: “Stetson Kennedy: Re-Imagining Justice in the 21st Century” Pugh Hall auditorium
The papers, donated by the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, will be included with those of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston in the Special Collections at the George A. Smathers Libraries.
“This is a moment of extraordinary importance for the University of Florida,” said Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF, a sponsor of the day's events.
Activities include an open house at the Smathers Library from 10 a.m. to noon, a showing of the film “Soul of a People - Writing America's Story” at 2 p.m. and a panel discussion at Pugh Hall at 6 p.m. that will include Peggy Bulger, former director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and Lucy Anne Hurston, the niece of Zora Neale Hurston.
The donated materials include high school writings, published and unpublished work, correspondence, photos, research files and several hundred audiotaped and videotaped interviews with him and with subjects he interviewed over the course of his career, Ortiz said.
“One of the things he really desired was that the papers, the tapes, the notes would be used by students, scholars and independent researchers,” he said. “He felt his career in investigative journalism had lessons for us today.”
Kennedy, who died in 2011 at the age of 94, was a Jacksonville native who attended the University of Florida, where he became friends with Rawlings, one of his professors and the Pulitzer-prize winning novelist of “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek.”
He left UF in 1937 to join the Work Projects Administration Federal Writers Project, where he was put in charge of oral history and folklore of Florida. He was also Hurston's supervisor, and together they traveled around the state, interviewing tobacco farmers, sponge divers, citrus growers and former slaves, composing profiles of the state's towns and cities, Ortiz said.
During his work as an oral historian and folklorist, Kennedy became friends with legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie, the writer Erskine Caldwell and folk musicologist Alan Lomax, Ortiz said. Caldwell became a writing mentor to Kennedy, whose first book “Palmetto Country” is still considered essential reading on Florida's history.
Kennedy is probably most known for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, exposing their secret rituals and beliefs in the memoir “I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan'' (retitled “The Klan Unmasked”).
Discussions about donating Kennedy's papers to UF started about a year or two before his death, Ortiz said.
“He was impressed by the quality of the University of Florida librarians,” Ortiz said. “Both he and his widow, Sandra Parks, were moved by the care, concern and excitement that our library staff have not only collecting, but preserving and promoting these materials.”
A concert sponsored by the Civic Media Center on July 14, 2012, commemorating Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday, played a key role in getting Kennedy's papers, Ortiz said. President Bernie Machen and his wife, Chris Machen, a Guthrie fan, went to the concert and spoke with Sandra Parks, Kennedy's widow, he said.
“They understood the importance of Stetson Kennedy,” Ortiz said. “I never had to make an argument. Once you look at his career, it speaks for itself.”