Thelma Ann Boltin, affectionately known as “Cousin” Thelma, was a storyteller, emcee, teacher and long-time director of the Florida Folk Festival. Her dedication to sharing Florida’s folk traditions brought diverse groups of artists to the festival each year, and established the festival’s reputation for celebrating unique and varied cultures.
Born in South Carolina, she was raised in Gainesville and taught theater in schools and community centers. Here’s a clip of Cousin Thelma discussing the history of the Florida Folk Festival and various folk tales.
Since the 1930s, women have had an important role in documenting, preserving and celebrating Florida’s diverse cultural heritage. March is Women’s History Month, and in this blog we will be recognizing some of these women.
Eatonville native Zora Neale Hurston documented turpentine workers in Cross City, Florida, as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. Through her essay “Turpentine” and field recordings, Hurston captured unique, first-hand accounts of day-to-day life in the turpentine camps and the traditions that were an integral part of the workers’ culture.
Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen, Eatonville, Florida.
At the same time Hurston was conducting fieldwork in Florida, Sarah Gertrude Knott founded both the National Folk Festival and the National Folk Festival Association in 1934; and Hurston served as one of the earliest advisors for these endeavors. In 1952, under contract from the Stephen Foster Memorial Commission, Knott organized the first Florida Folk Festival and formed the Florida Folk Festival Association. She also served as director of the first two Florida Folk Festivals in 1953 and 1954.
Succeeding Knott as director of the Florida Folk Festival from 1954-1965 was “Cousin” Thelma Boltin from Gainesville. In addition to sharing her gifts as a storyteller, organizer and emcee, Cousin Thelma—a title earned from her familial rapport with festival participants—scouted the state for folk artists to recruit for the festival. With the help of Barbara Beauchamp, Boltin established the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs as a valuable institution for sharing and celebrating the state’s varied traditions.
The success of the Florida Folk Festival brought the Stephen Foster Memorial Center a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Florida Folklife Program was instituted in 1976. Dr. Peggy Bulger was Florida’s first state folklorist, founding and administering the Florida Folklife Program from 1976-1989. She created a large body of fieldwork which laid the foundations for the Florida Folklife Collection and instituted valuable outreach programs, such as apprenticeships, educational videos and publications, workshops and exhibits. Dr. Bulger went on to serve as the senior program officer for the Southern Arts Federation and later as director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center.
Folklorist Peggy Bulger, right, conducting field work with quiltmaker Betsy (Mrs. Denard) Webb in White Springs, Florida.
With the establishment of the Florida Folklife Program came significant contributions from many other women. Working alongside Peggy Bulger was Brenda McCallum, who was instrumental in documenting and establishing contacts in Florida’s communities. She also played an important role in developing the Florida Folklife Program Archive, and today the American Folklore Society awards a prize in her honor to institutions and individuals working with folklife collections. Tina Bucuvalas served as the state folklorist from 1996-2009, though her work in the Florida Folklife Program dates back to 1986 with the Miami-Dade Folklife Survey. She currently serves as curator of arts and historical resources for the City of Tarpon Springs, and recently edited The Florida Folklife Reader.
Folklorist Nancy Nusz interviewing Mr. Ramesch from the Mandeer Restaurant at the 1983 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, Florida.
The list of women who have been integral to the research, documentation and teaching of Florida’s folk traditions continues with Lillian Saunders, Merri Belland, Doris Dyen, Nancy Nusz, Riki Saltzman, Jan Rosenberg, Debbie Fant, Andrea Graham, Laurie Sommers, Mary Anne McDonald, Teresa Hollingsworth and Betsy Peterson. As part of the Florida Folklife Collection, the recordings in the podcast below provide a unique look into some of the methods, philosophies and motivations behind the work of folklorists.
This podcast features songs, stories, speeches and interviews from Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Gertrude Knott, Thelma Boltin, Peggy Bulger and Doris Dyen.
Florida Memory is funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services.