Coming home at last; Stetson Kennedy's work to reside at UF


James Cusick, head of the Florida History Collection at UF, looks over papers, recordings and other materials in the processing room donated to UF by the Stetson Kennedy Foundation at the George A. Smathers Library.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 9:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 10:14 p.m.

Stetson Kennedy was a firebrand civil rights activist and groundbreaking folklorist who is probably best known for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and writing about it.

He also was a prolific writer, who left behind more than 70 years of material for researchers, academics, journalists, biographers and historians to mine through after he died in 2011 at the age of 94.

Now, after several years of negotiations, the complete collection of his papers has found a permanent home at the University of Florida's George Smathers Libraries Special Collections.

"The collection has all the earmarks of something everybody wants to look at," said James Cusick, who oversees the Florida History Collection at UF.

It also now resides in the same library as the collections of Kennedy's cohorts in Florida folklore and literature — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston.

Kennedy was a student of Rawlings while at UF, and he and Hurston worked together on the Florida Writers Project in the 1930s, gathering oral histories from Greek spongers, former slaves working in turpentine camps, cigar-rollers in Tampa, and rum-runners in Key West.

"This is a marriage made in heaven as far as we're concerned," said John Nemmers, an archivist for the library. "You dream about getting collections like this."

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The collection includes Kennedy's published articles, unpublished papers, letters and manuscripts, college poems and juvenilia. It includes 50-100 videotapes and twice that number of audiotapes of Kennedy interviewing people and being interviewed by others.

The written work alone, with papers stacked on top of each other, would be 100 feet high, as high as a 10-story building.

The herculean task of cataloguing his written output — both published and unpublished, from high school to his last days on earth — has fallen to a team of archivists at the University of Florida Special Collections.

In the special collection processing room of Library East, two huge 8-foot-by-12-foot tables are stacked with material, boxes of articles, papers, posters and jacket patches from the Ku Klux Klan, and boxes of audiotapes and CDs. Downstairs in the library vault, another 50-75 boxes await cataloguing.

And more boxes of papers await them at Kennedy's home in St. Augustine.

Nemmers, Cusick and literary archivist Flo Turcotte are heading up the project to organize the collection, with the help of four undergraduates from the history department. They've been at it since spring, and expect to be done cataloguing the works by next spring.

The task has uncovered several surprises.

"We found so many things we didn't know about," Nemmers said.

For example, the collection contains articles written by "Daddy Mention." A handwritten note Nemmers found explained that Daddy Mention was the name of a character in black folklore Kennedy used as a pseudonym when he wrote for black publications, and to shield his identity from the Klan.

One of the biggest tasks will be to digitize the audio and video tapes so they can be put online, Nemmers said.

And there is more material to come. Sandra Parks, Kennedy's widow, is holding onto the personal letters of Kennedy while she works on editing his unfinished memoirs.

Even after the main cataloguing is done next spring, work on the collection will continue.

"We will continue working on it aggressively for years to come as other materials become available," he said. "This is one of those collections that we'll be building on for years to come."

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Kennedy was as hard to categorize as his work, and the writing shows surprising examples of his diverse interests that the UF archivists have already uncovered.

"Like Rawlings and Hurston, he was an excellent writer, a fact overshadowed by his activism," Cusick said. "Also, he was funny and had a gift for turning a phrase."

The earliest example of that is the newspaper he made up in high school in Jacksonville called the "John Gorrie Budget."

Another discovery is a 1935 poem that he wrote while a student at the University of Florida titled "Gin House Lake." There's a letter from 1939 advising other writers to follow their passion. And there is a short story based on interviews he conducted with a real-life rum runner from Cuba.

One particularly amazing find, said Cusick, was a battered, water-stained journal with penciled entries of people Kennedy met in Europe and Asia during the 1950s, including Pablo Neruda in Vienna in 1953, and the name of an editor in Rangoon. There are notes for an article he wrote for a French magazine about the Peking Opera.

"When we found this with all the Chinese in it, at first we thought, no it can't be part of his writings, but then we realized it was from the 1950s when he went to France," Cusick said. "Here he is in mainland China at the height of the Cold War going to the Peking Opera!"

Parks, Kennedy's widow, said Kennedy was great at saving everything, but not so good at filing. When he moved into their house in St. Augustine five years before his death, she asked him to start filing his papers. Parks said he told her, "I'm not going to spend what little time I have filing. That's for posterity."

She pointed out that posterity was a woman named Sandra, so he relented, and made an effort to organize his papers.

Parks said Kennedy was keen to have his papers at UF, because he knew the librarians were professionals who would take good care to preserve his work, and would also make sure it was used.

"He wanted it where people had the professional expertise to protect it," she said.

And now that his entire collection is at UF, Parks said, "I'm happy to say posterity's name is the University of Florida Special Collections."

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