|Stetson Kennedy records his wife Edith in 1939.|
Stetson Kennedy, who died on Saturday as Hurricane Irene stormed up the East Coast, had a love of justice and relished how people faced life and its challenges. He was a few weeks short of his 95th birthday.
As a teenager in Jacksonville, Florida, Kennedy worked for his father’s furniture store, sometimes collecting payments and other times having to repossess items people could no longer afford as the Great Depression worsened. A stove might still be hot from the last meal cooked on it when he hauled it off, he recalled in interviews for Soul of a People.
Even then, Kennedy was struck by how Floridians spoke, black and white. He knew he was “hearing a subculture, or two subcultures really, that had significance and flavor.”
As a student during the Great Depression, he studied natural science before leaving college and becoming a student of human nature. He started gathering folklore and sayings in the varied communities of Key West, where he met his first wife. He found it remarkable how the island’s Cuban community, despite poverty, “were really enjoying life in a way that I’d never seen anybody enjoying life.” Even in hard times, people made time for song, dance, and food.
Kennedy joined the Florida Writers’ Project in December 1937 and worked on it as editor and folklorist for several years. He worked with Zora Neale Hurston on Florida folklore for the WPA Guide to Florida, and corresponded with Richard Wright about Wright’s essays on how to depict black culture. (He later visited with Wright in France when both were expatriates in the 1950s.) In 1939 Kennedy led one leg of a recording expedition that used portable sound equipment from the Library of Congress to record the stories and songs of a richly varied southern Florida. He interviewed his first wife Edith and her Cuban relatives in Ybor City and recorded the life stories of Bahamian midwives further south.
Having grown up privileged by a culture of segregation, Kennedy felt a responsibility to fight its injustices, and help expose those who exploited them in groups like the Ku Klux Klan. His undercover work led to him broadcast silly ritual codes in episodes of the Superman radio series in the late 1940s, and lay bare the brutal facts of their intimidation and terror. He ran for the U.S. Senate with a write-in candidacy in 1950, aided by a campaign song by Woody Guthrie. In his later years in Florida, he also championed environmental and labor causes. Kennedy’s life is the subject of a forthcoming film by Andrea Kalin. To learn more, visit the Stetson Kennedy website maintained by his grandson.