Saturday, March 19, 2016

Stetson Kennedy's Archives in His 100th Year: The St. Augustine Record

COOL ARTICLE by reporter Jared Keever in today's St. Augustine Record on the archives of my late mentor, KKK-busting activist Stetson Kennedy, who called me "Stetson Kennedy, Jr.," the second time we met (introduced by the late Native American activist David Thundershield Queen).

Stetson Kennedy's archives to be finalized in his centennial year

Posted: March 18, 2016 - 5:12pm  |  Updated: March 18, 2016 - 11:19pm

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PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COMSandra Parks looks through a collection papers that belonged to her late husband Stetson Kennedy at her home in St. Augustine on Friday, March 18, 2016.
PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COMSandra Parks looks through a collection papers that belonged to her late husband Stetson Kennedy at her home in St. Augustine on Friday, March 18, 2016.

Stetson Kennedy shakes hands with an African-American man while wearing a white Ku Klux Klan robe in 1946.
Stetson Kennedy shakes hands with an African-American man while wearing a white Ku Klux Klan robe in 1946. 

The morning Sandra Parks took Stetson Kennedy to the hospital for the last time, he stopped on the way out the back door of her St. Augustine home, motioned to a collection of papers and told her, “Don’t let them forget about Harry.”

The papers were a file that her husband, the famed activist and folklorist, had kept on slain civil rights leader Harry T. Moore. It was a small part of a huge collection of Kennedy’s papers.

“So at that moment I had the impression that Stetson knew that this was his last ride,” Parks said Wednesday, sitting behind the counter of Anastasia Books, her downtown bookstore.

“All the way to Jacksonville he gave me instructions, and by 9:30 in the morning we knew that he had a subdural hematoma that would kill him if he didn’t have an operation,” she said.

He never did have that operation and five days later Kennedy was dead at the age of 94. But since that August day in 2011, Parks, along with a group of volunteers and academics, have been hard at work sorting through and preserving the archives of the man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and lived to write about it in the book now titled “The Klan Unmasked.”

Much of what Kennedy kept is now at the University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History.

Getting it there was a long and arduous task, according to Parks, 75.

“Stetson saved an immense collection of papers,” Parks said.

“He once said to me, ‘Save all of my income tax filings,’” she recalled.

When she asked why, he told her, “Because people will need to know how I lived.”

“Stetson wanted to save every blooming thing about himself,” she laughed.

“He had a keen since of himself,” recalled Parks — who was Kennedy’s seventh wife.

She said she viewed his request to preserve his tax documents as a “commentary on Stetson’s view of his own significance.”

It’s a view that others share. Small archives of Kennedy’s papers already exist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Georgia Southern University and at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

And in the 1990s, when he was badly in need of cash, Kennedy sold a large portion of his papers to the University of South Florida in Tampa, Parks said.

Shortly after his death, at a birthday celebration for Kennedy’s friend Woody Guthrie, Parks said then-President of the University of Florida Bernie Machen approached her and asked about moving Kennedy’s papers to UF.

She told him she had to be sure she was not obligated to move the rest of what she had to USF and agreed that if the two schools could work out a way to get Kennedy’s USF papers to Gainesville she would move what she had to the P.K. Yonge Library.

By 2013, a deal had been worked out and the University of Florida announced it would be home to the bulk of Kennedy’s archives.

Parks said she is sure Kennedy would have been happy with the announcement.

For one thing, she said, Kennedy, with his “keen sense of himself,” never was quite happy with the USF’s handling of his work.

“Stetson was a great marketer and he marketed himself,” Parks said. “He didn’t think they (USF) were marketing him very well.”

But perhaps more importantly, Kennedy knew that the P.K. Yonge Library is also home to the archives of Florida novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The records of Florida’s branch of the federal Works Progress Administration — with whom Kennedy worked alongside Hurston during the Great Depression — are also there, Parks said.

“He used that library in his own research,” she said.

The work

Parks married Kennedy in November 2006.

His health was getting worse around that time and his doctors said he should get away from the mildew in his cedar home at Lake Beluthahatchee in northern St. Johns County. He moved to Parks’ Valencia Street home. They were together by that point, but Parks insisted on marriage.

“I told him it lacked nobility to be shacking up with a 90-year-old celebrity,” she joked.

He agreed.

About the same time he started moving in what he had left of his archives. What wasn’t at USF and what hadn’t been thrown into the lake during Klan raids on the Beluthahatchee property while he was away, took up residence in a back room of Parks’ home.

“Stetson’s idea of collecting papers was cleaning off the top of a table into a file box,” she said.

What ended up at Valencia Street — about 75 boxes — was so poorly organized that Parks knew the two of them couldn’t do the work themselves.

“I said to him at the time, ‘Stetson, we need help to organize these file boxes of paper,’” she recalled. “And he said to me, ‘I’m not going to spend what little time I have left filing. That’s for posterity.’”

“And I said to him, ‘Posterity’s name is Sandra and you are not going to leave me with this job,’” she laughed.

They eventually found help from a pair of Flagler College students and others who helped organize the contents of the pile of boxes.

The sorting and the organization continued after Kennedy’s death. The problem was that important documents were buried in boxes full of other badly damaged papers or items of little to no historical value. But because Parks and the others understood the importance, they kept sorting.

A prized letter, signed by Martin Luther King Jr., was found, after a frantic search, in a liquor box, full of miscellaneous papers, many of which had disintegrated into small fragments.

“It looked like trash,” Parks said of the box’s contents. “If I had thrown out the box I would have thrown out Martin Luther King’s letter.”

She described finding correspondence between Kennedy and author Richard Wright in a box full of “takeout menus and phone bills.”

The collection

Parks said she is happy with what has been turned over to the Gainesville library.

Dr. James Cusick, the curator at the P.K. Yonge Library, said in a phone interview Friday that he is, too.

Most of what’s there had been moved by 2013. But he and a group of interns and a graduate assistant continue to sort and organize.

Once done — with duplicates removed and the items packed away neatly in boxes — the collection will be a significant portion of Kennedy’s work.

“If you lined all of it up on the floor it would be about 50 feet,” Cusick said.

That will be between 15 to 20, 3-foot book shelves. The Harry T. Moore file is there. There are also numerous video and audio recordings of talks and interviews given by Kennedy.

Much of that has been transferred to digital audio files, which make up an important part of the collection.

“You get a very different sense of him if you listen to him,” Cusick said.

While the university is not turning away researchers and producers who request access, they are not heavily promoting the collection yet, either.

Cusick hopes the organization project will be complete by summer, which would mean the archives would be fully accessible by Kennedy’s centennial.

Kennedy would have turned 100 in October of this year.

“By May, I want to have a guide up online of everything that we’ve done,” Cusick said.

“Over the summer and into the fall we’ll be working to promote that and promote the materials in the collection,” he added.

Those who use the collection for research will likely be surprised by what they find, Cusick said. While most already know of Kennedy’s work concerning the Ku Klux Klan, fewer know about the time he spent in Eastern Europe after World War II. His papers from that time are now in Gainesville.

So too are “other aspects to include his work with conservation and the environment and preserving folk culture and folk life,” Cusick said.

Once the work is complete, Parks and the others can rest assured that they have helped Kennedy preserve his legacy and ensure that people don’t forget about Harry.

Preserving the memory of his life’s work is what Kennedy would have wanted, Parks said. On the day he refused the surgery that might have saved his life, Kennedy told those around him it was a life with which he was content.

“Everybody’s got a mission. Mine is done,” he said, according to Parks. “We need to get on with what I need to do.”

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