Palmetto Country Revisited

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A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Stetson Kennedy’s widow, Sandra Parks, at the Other Words Conference in St. Augustine. We talked for a little while, and I bought a copy of Palmetto Country, a book that I remember floating around in my family when I was young, but that I never took a very good look at.

Stetson Kennedy is best remembered as the folklorist who infiltrated the KKK in the 1940’s in a strange caper that resulted in many of the Klan’s secrets being exposed on the Superman radio show. He was also a very serious collector of stories and folklore from the region he called The Palmetto Country- Florida and Southern Georgia. The book Palmetto Country is an intensive examination of this region, comprising what could best be described as a People’s History of Florida. Kennedy collected stories and songs of the common people, covering jook joints, brothels, witchcraft, and politics, among many other subjects. It’s a striking and exhaustive piece of work, showing an image of Florida from way before the time of Disney. The work is, in my eyes, one of the most important literary expressions of Florida, one that may be more or less factually accurate, but is still essentially true.

The final chapters of Palmetto Country recount the series of strikes and labor struggles in the Cigar Factories of Tampa and Ybor City. These stories resonate with me in a strange way. My grandmother worked in those same factories, beginning when she was fourteen years old. She told me of listening to El Lector read the newspaper out loud to the workers in three different languages, and of the

 

 

Kennedy illustrates it all beautifully, mainly by giving voice to the workers who fought hard for better wages and faced down the bosses and the strike breakers. One story stand out above the others. One night during the strike of 1920, word got out that the Klan was coming to burn down the union hall. They rode to Ybor in their robes, carrying torches high—when they got there, they were met by union men sitting in wooden chairs on both sides of the street, each one with a shotgun or a rifle resting across their lap. According to Kennedy, the Klan just kept riding, rounded the block then went home, in what must have been the tensest parade in the history of Ybor City.

This is the kind of history that quickly disappears from the official record, and never shows up in a classroom to begin with.  It’s the sort of thing that defines a place, for better or worse. I’ve had people try to tell me that the Gulf Coast of Florida has no identity of its own, that so many people are just coming and going, that no one stays in one place long enough to build much of a life, let alone a culture. But just under the surface of the strip malls and the subdivisions, there’s rich, complicated, sometimes painful history that stretches back two thousand years. There’s also a mish-mash of cultures and stories and personalities that define a sense of the place, and it’s all at the mercy of wind, rain, and sinkholes. As a writer, I feel like I hit the jackpot, growing up in San Antonio, Dade City, and Tampa, there are so many great stories to tell.

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