A century can make a lot of difference in the world, especially in the American South. In 1916, though focused on a resolute and growing economy and modern progress, the South was still very much in the mindset of the Civil War era in plenty of ways. Jim Crow laws and racial divides ensured that the antebellum separations between whites and blacks remained in most aspects of life, and economic and social betterment eluded many poorer whites as well as blacks. Stetson Kennedy was born into all of this that year in Jacksonville, Florida, which at the time was starting to become the city of industry it is today.
Both then and now, Jacksonville’s main advantage in industry was its status as a highly-capable port. But in 1916 the primary export goods were timber and naval stores products that came from nearby forests. Much of the lands of Florida and southern Georgia were engaged in naval stores-related timber production, harvesting the oleoresin that was turned into turpentine required for the sealing of wooden ship surfaces and a host of other applications. While naval stores was lucrative for those who owned the timberland and ran the operations, it was also a very demanding industry in its need for manual labor, and the work was back-breaking.
Most of it was done by blacks, and sometimes by convicts leased to naval stores companies from the state penitentiaries. The conditions in the far-flung naval stores camps in the deep of the pine woods were often deplorable but gave rise to their own folkways and traditions. No one had really investigated any of the affairs of turpentine work, however—not the labor problems, racial divides, nor folk culture—but Stetson Kennedy would change all that, with the help of Zora Neale Hurston, the pioneering anthropologist who chronicled black culture in Florida.
Stetson Kennedy’s interest in folklore began early. In high school he constantly pestered his father, a furniture salesman, for stories about lower-income customers and how they lived, how their subculture differed from the decently-affluent one his own family was part of as members of Jacksonville’s business class. (Stetson’s unusual name came from his mother’s family, the same Stetsons which included the famous hat-maker and founder of the university by the same name in Deland, Florida.) Like many young men in Florida at the time who hoped to better themselves, the logical place for Kennedy to turn for a post-high school education was the University of Florida in Gainesville.
While the university was well-respected, Gainesville remained a small and sleepy college town and regional epicenter in the midst of the very forests that provided the pine timber for naval stores—there were camps only fifteen miles or less from the university itself and larger operations in the neighboring countries of Columbia, Dixie, Lafayette, and Levy. While a student at the University of Florida, Kennedy struck up a lasting friendship with one of his professors, the renowned novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who was very much a trailblazer in exploring the unknown backwoods of Florida and the “Cracker” folk who lived there. Her famous novel The Yearling was actually based on a family she befriended in what is today the Ocala National Forest: the son of the family found an abandoned fawn and raised it, providing Rawlings the material she spun into one of America’s most-beloved and endearing of tales.
When Stetson Kennedy was in college in the 1930’s, the nation was a very different place, and Florida probably even more so than many regions. Kennedy left the university in 1937 to work for the Works Progress Administration’s Florida Writers’ Project where he, despite being only twenty-one and having no journalistic experience beyond college, was put in charge of folklore studies where, despite her greater age and education, Zora Neale Hurston worked under Kennedy. One of the places they visited was Cross City, where they interviewed black naval stores workers about their folk culture.
At the time Cross City had just become the county seat of the newly-formed Dixie County. Even today, Cross City is over an hour’s drive from Gainesville and quite rural with the palmetto and pine forests surrounding it still downright wild. Timber production remains the core industry of the area, with occasional farms cleared in the forest as well. When Kennedy and Hurston arrived there—a young white man and a black female academic—Cross City was a place where racial divisions ran high. It was also a place that was much smaller than either Jacksonville or Gainesville. Its turpentine camps were out in the woods, some very remote from even this relatively-isolated place. Certainly here was a place where things could well be done as the local powers liked, and the powers were as much the men who ran turpentine camps as the law or local government.
Due to the prevailing racism, Kennedy and Hurston were not always welcome visitors, and this was not only true in rural Cross City but also even in Jacksonville when they returned to Kennedy’s childhood hometown. As a young journalist and writer, Kennedy quickly learned the realities of race in Florida, and this became one of the core subjects of his life’s work and probably the one he is best known for today. Eventually he infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan and provided some of the first-hand accounts of the secret society that led to legal actions against it. But as important as Kennedy has been for social justice, it would be remiss to overlook his contributions to folklore.
Kennedy learned a great amount from Hurston, and in return he provided her with the official venue and rationale for her work. The WPA across the nation pioneered research and publication on folklore and folkways, providing not only the funding and organization to achieve quality results but also offering scholarly work accessible for a non-academic readership. That work became the basis for much further sociological and literary research, especially in the South. Aside from people like Rawlings—who was a novelist despite her acute eye for details of folklife and history—there was hardly anyone working on Florida folkways from a learned, stratified, perspective.
The work that Hurston did with Kennedy became the basis of her book Mules and Men and for much of her further work on the plight of blacks in the South—especially in Florida. For Kennedy, the stories they collected in small towns, in turpentining camps, along rural roads, and in the heart of a growing Jacksonville became his first book, Palmetto Country. Hurston and Kennedy also oversaw the production of (and contributed much of the content to) several WPA guidebooks to Florida and to “Negro” folk culture. All of this was done out of the WPA’s local office in Jacksonville, and both Hurston and Kennedy were well-acquainted with Florida—Kennedy was a native, and Hurston—who was from Alabama—also quickly became a savvy observer of the state and lived in the Melbourne area for years.
Part of the reason Kennedy became interested in the KKK and infiltrating it to expose its violence and crimes was because he saw tracings of the Klan’s hand in how turpentine camps were run and encountered Klansmen who were involved in running the camps as well as those where were prominent men in Jacksonville and elsewhere.
The Klan, therefore, at this point in history was not a totally obscure or even fully hidden organization. While the Klan was feared by blacks, it seemed to have been broadly tolerated by whites in the South, especially in Florida at the time, and played a prominent role in maintaining the white-dominated sense of order in some rural areas. The concern Kennedy developed about race relations in the turpentine camps cannot be overstated. In places such as “Captain” Alston Brown’s Blue Creek Camp between Keaton Beach and Perry, Captain Brown and his woodriders (white foremen who oversaw the work of black labors in the woods) pretty much had free reign in how they enforced rules and in many cases there were grave—even criminal—abuses of power.
By the 1930’s, some technological advances had changed naval stores—for instance, improvements in barrel-making removed the demand for coopers in every camp—yet this was still a very labor-intensive industry, especially at the field level where oleoresin was being drawn from pines. While there were undoubtedly some ethical bosses in the turpentine business, many engaged in practices such as promising workers higher wages than they actually paid or withholding wages, forcing workers in debt at the company store, or preventing workers from leaving their camps—sometimes going as far as having woodsriders armed with shotguns and dogs chase them down if they attempted to escape.
As a favorite tactic for obtaining laborers was to lease convicts from the state prisons, the use of brute force in enforcing rules was often assumed as necessary in a camp—with the assumption that all workers were in fact convicted criminals and up to no good. The lease system also attracted little attention or oversight by the prisons themselves, as in it they had an outside customer essentially paying the prison money to maintain and feed its own prisoners.
Both turpentine bosses and prison wardens and officials obviously profited from this arrangement, with the naval stores industry getting basically slave labor and the prisons getting a large number of their convicts off their hands. When a convict died at a camp, he was often buried there with no communication to his surviving family who was probably hundreds of miles away—perhaps even out of state. This was not simply due to lazy record-keeping: in some cases there was intentional deceit to keep deceased convicts from being reported to the prisons to avoid any sort of official investigation. And again, as long as the prison was being paid for the leased convict, they were rarely inclined to do much investigating.
Stetson Kennedy went on to become an award-winning author and to be considered one of the foremost journalists and social activists of his time, but his early origins at the University of Florida and with the WPA provided him not only with the firm foundation he’d build his later work upon but also with a body of folk history that remains crucial to our understanding of Florida and its region—its race relations, its industry, and its general society—today.
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