Historical inaccuracies in Kennedy obit

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Dear Editor:

In the Sept. 7-15, article “Klan Buster’ Stetson Kennedy dies at 94 in Fla,” Terry Spencer makes many points about the contributions of Kennedy to exposing the Ku Klux Klan, his work as a journalist, especially his work for the Pittsburgh Courier. However misleading statements in an obituary could lead to historical inaccuracies. There is no mention of Kennedy’s role with the Florida Edition of the Courier, which he managed for a time. The Florida edition of the paper had one of the largest subscription and circulation numbers of any of the paper’s national editions.

Additionally Kennedy’s work with Zora Neale Hurston is printed out of context. He did not have to supervise Zora’s folklore research and documentation in Florida. Zora was a native of Eatonville, Fla. for which much of this research took place. Those folklore/cultural aspects of Black life she was recording is what she experienced first hand growing up in Eatonville. The culture around this independent Black town’s barbershop, the games she played as a child continued by a younger generation as she returned to interview, film, and photograph her people were not new to her. Furthermore she was an experienced anthropologist trained at Columbia University and advanced as a writer and interpreter of Black life and culture. My point is that Zora did not need Kennedy to supervise her work— Kennedy’s role was a placement so that Zora could receive the funding to complete the work. American racism didn’t trust that Black scholars and scientists could do advanced research and many times placed White people–especially men–in charge of the Black person’s project.

So it comes to us in 2011 that Stetson Kennedy supervised Zora Neale Hurston’s research on her own life and community. It is as if a White person was needed to tell and guide August Wilson’s understanding of the Hill District and Black life within it. This is not to diminish Kennedy’s role in Zora’s work or his overall contribution to journalism and literature—that stand on its own, but to try and put into proper context the relationship between Hurston and Kennedy so that we could better understand the genius of Hurston and the racist environment she worked in. Much of my point is discussed in Kristy Anderson’s film “Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun.”

Samuel W Black
Heinz History Center

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