Zora Neale Hurston and the WPA in Florida
Documents and Audio
Stetson Kennedy on the Florida Writers' Project
From 1937 to 1942, Stetson Kennedy headed the Florida Writers' Project unit on folklore, oral history, and social-ethnic studies. Kennedy and Zora Neale Hurston worked together to capture the traditions, songs, tales, and anecdotes of the people of Florida.
Kennedy's introduction to A Reference Guide to Florida Folklore from the Federal WPA Deposited in the Florida Folklife Archives (Florida Division of Historical Resources, 1990) describes the work of the Federal Writers' Project in Florida. "Zora's Contributions" and "The Recording Expeditions" in particular discuss Zora Neale Hurston and their trip to the turpentine camp near Cross City.
- The Federal Context
- The Florida Staff
- The Flow of Copy
- The "Negro Unit"
- The Ex-Slave Narratives and "The Florida Negro"
- Zora's Contributions
- Social-Ethnic Studies and Life History
- The Recording Expeditions
- The End
Florida Folklife and the WPA, an Introduction
By: Stetson Kennedy
Director of Folklore, Life History, and Social-Ethnic Studies,
WPA Florida Writers Project, 1938-41
Most of the materials listed in this guide were collected by the Florida component of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), between the years 1935 and 1941. This was of course during the Great Depression, the "root-hog-or-die days" (as folksay puts it), when there were as many as 16 million Americans in the ranks of the unemployed. Among these were to be found people from every walk of life, including not only erstwhile financiers, but men and women who had once earned their livings in such cultural fields as writing, painting, acting, and music.
The FWP, inaugurate September 28, 1935 under the direction of Henry G. Alsberg, embarked upon the ambitious "American Guide Series" of guidebooks on each state that would, in the aggregate, "hold up a mirror to America." During the years of the FWP activity, however, collecting guidelines evolved with the succession of federal staff.
In its very first year, the FWP began the collection of customs and lore as an integral aspect of the American Guide Series. A sense of urgency was implanted all down the line by a realization at the top that "such an opportunity to collect this material may never recur." Alsberg's assistant Katherine Kellock drafted an initial set of instructives on the subjects, which was included in the general instruction manual for fieldworkers. Among other things, the Manual admonished fieldworkers to
"Write down everything of importance pertaining to your subject. Do not be concerned about style. Your local editor will revise your copy." Further folklore guidelines were promulgated in March of 1936. By July, the influx of materials led to the creation of a separate program component dealing with all genres, with a view to eventual publication of collections in book form.
From the outset, the veritable army of FWP "fieldworkers" who set about the formidable task of gathering material for the guides focused its attention not so much upon libraries as upon such primary sources as "old-timers," old newspapers, and on-site probing. What they found was an enormous amount of firsthand information, past and present, about the lives and lores of the peoples who made America. Such terms as "folklife" and "oral history" had not yet come into use, but one might say we of the FWP were among the first American professionals in the field of folklore collecting. We were hard at it, even at $37.50 per fortnight--the going WPA wage scale in rural Florida counties for "Professional and Technical" staff. In those days, before either the tape recorder or video camera, fieldworkers were admonished to "look with fresh eyes" and to "stick to the precise language of the narrator." A set of forms was devised to accompany the text of each oral interview, to provide biographical and occupational background data on the informants. A final reference page was required for the listing of name and address of each informant, together with any published sources utilized.
Fieldworkers were deliberately steered away from "leading citizens" in their search for lore and toward the ""old cook, washerwoman, gardener, and old residents who were close to the soil." Among the categories sought after were customs concerning birth, courtship, marriage, and death; songs; religious practices; community festivals; oft-told tales of natural happenings, local heroes, and characters reputed to have super-human skills.
In June 1936, Alsberg appointed John A. Lomax as "national advisor" on folklore. Together Alsberg and Lomax drafted a directive detailing an expanded list of categories of folklore for which fieldworkers should be on the lookout, not only for their state guides, but for separate volumes of lore. The list included wishing seats, wishing wells, proposal rocks, swamps and quicksands with sinister reputations, "localities with beneficent qualities," animal behavior and meanings, stories about animals and their relations with people, table service, blessing crops, public punishment, tall tales, drinking toast, graveyard epitaphs, psychics, and witches.
Lomax left the FWP in October 1937 and was succeeded by Benjamin A. Botkin, in the position of Folklore Editor, in May 1938. Botkin's philosophy of folklore and culture were suggested in his "Foreward" to Folk-Say: A Regional Miscellany:
"They have the forthrightness, tang, and tone of people talking, the immediacy and concreteness of the participant and the eyewitness, and the salty irony and mother wit which, like the gift of memory, are kept alive by the bookless."
Botkin saw the publications of the FWP as "a chance to give back to the people what we have taken from them and what rightfully belongs to them, in a form which they can understand and use."
He wrote that:
The folk movement must come from below upward rather than of above downward. Otherwise it may be dismissed as a patronizing gesture, a nostalgic wish, an elegiac complaint, a sporadic and abortive revival--on the part of paternalistic aristocrats going slumming, dilettantish provincials going native, defeated sentimentalists going back to the soil, and anybody and everybody who cares to go collecting.
Despite Botkin's impeccable credentials and "track record," there were some in the discipline of folklore who were inclined to take a dim view of his "two-way street" concept, his insistence that
urban lore was no less significant than the rural, the living no less than the long-dead, and that folk culture had not at all been doomed by the industrial revolution. In late 1939, Botkin undertook a Southern tour in an effort to orient the directors, editors, and fieldworkers of state projects to his perspective. He involved fieldworkers in the staff sessions and was highly persuasive. Of a meeting in Jacksonville on December 1, he reported to Alsberg:
"I held a general staff meeting discussing American Folk Stuff and the folklore studies in general. The staff is a superior one and the direction is excellent. I went over the study of Ybor City, the Latin colony of Tampa, and gave individual criticism to Veronica Huss on her able study of the Conchs of Riviera. Thursday afternoon I held a round table, arranged by Dr. Corse, for the state directors of Federal Project No. 1 and Recreation and Education. This was one of the best meetings of the kind that I have conducted."
Dr. Carita Doggett Corse was state director of the Florida project. News of her appointment came in a wire from Alsberg dated October 1, 1935. Her salary was $3,292 per annum, which was more than she was then earning as a teacher.
Born in Jacksonville in 1891, she earned an A. B. degree from Vasser, an A. M. from Columbia, and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of the South at Sewannee. She was married to Herbert Montgomery Corse a pioneer family of Picolata on the St. Johns River. Her scholarly publications included "Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the New Smyrna Colony," Key to the Golden Isle, and The Story of Jacksonville.
Dr. Corse remained director of the FWP from its first day to its last. I worked in and out of the same office with her for several years, and several more at a distance, and I would give her a high rating. Her enthusiasm for uncovering Floridiana kept the moral of the entire staff at fever pitch.
Initially the authorized staffing strength of the Florida project was set at 200, including 10 blacks. This number fluctuated downward from time to time, according to the temper of Congress. By mid-December of 1935, a total of 138 had been hired statewide, with 29 of these stationed in Jacksonville and 17 in Tampa. Although the FWP was initially required to employ 90% of its total staff from the ranks of the unemployed, the Florida project received authorization to hire up to 25% from non-relief applicants, it being assumed that not enough competent writer and editors could be found on relief rolls to produce the Guide.
The Florida staff on the supervisory/editorial level consisted of two distinct elements, on being an academically-trained, literarily-inclined intelligentsia, and the other coming in the main from journalistic backgrounds. For example, Tampa district director Max Hunter had been news editor at the St. Petersburg Times. In many cases, however, journalists came from defunct rural weeklies.
As for the fieldworkers, a majority were housewives with a high school education and a penchant for writing. What the fieldworkers lacked in formal training was more than compensated for by their zealous belief in the importance of the work they were doing. Unlike many an academic collector, they did not have to relate to their informants; they were related: by class, culture, and sometimes kinship. All they had to do was knock on any door, and the rapport was there.
I joined the Florida project in December of 1937, in Gainesville, at the age of 21. My job title was "Junior Interviewer," and my salary was $37.50 every two weeks. In February of 1938, after a couple of months of going over draft chapters from The Florida Guide manuscript with various professors at the University of Florida who served as consultants, I was transferred to work as a member of the state editorial team in Jacksonville. I volunteered to write revisions of the "Folklore" and "Fauna" chapters, and to write a "Contemporary Scene" essay, all of which was granted unto me.
Some of this writing was done while doing field research in Key West, where I wrote the "Florida Keys tour" section and compiled an "Inventory" of Key West Conch and Cuban lore. This latter caught the eye of Botkin in Washington, and he recommended that I be put in charge of folklore, life history, and social-ethnic studies in Florida. Alsberg approved in December of 1938. Thereafter I wore all three hats, although for quite some time Corse held my salary to the "relief' level, claiming a lack of funds to do otherwise.
A 1938 tabulation of FWP staff assigned to "Folklore and Ethnic Studies" consisted of ten persons statewide, as follows:
Diggs, Paul (Negro) ........................... Lakeland
Edwards, Robert A. ........................... Jacksonville
Hargis, Modeste ........................... Pensacola
Hurston, Zora Neale (Negro) ........................... Eatonville
Huss, Veronica E. ........................... West Palm Beach
Kennedy, Stetson ........................... Jacksonville
Lamme, Corinne ........................... Tampa
Shepherd, Rose ........................... Jacksonville
Stedman, Lillian Mae ........................... Jacksonville
Comstock, Bertha R. ........................... Miami
The tabulation, however, is misleading in that it merely lists those persons who were assigned to this tripartite program more or less full-time. In reality, pretty much the entire revolving FWP staff of 200 at one time or another took a hand in the collecting of such materials.
Among the staffers who had a penchant for the folkloric and contributed much of the material listed in the Reference are to be counted Hilton Crowe and Albert Manucy of Key West and St. Augustine; Gladys Buck, Natalie Newell, and Cora Mae Taylor of Miami; Bertha Comstock of Redlands;
Barbara Darsey of Sebring; Wayne Bloosom, Lindsay Bryant, Felix Canella, Frank Castro, Jules Frost, A.L. Lopez, Manuel Marrero, and Frank Valdez of Tampa; and John Filareton of Tarpon Springs.
In many instances, researchers utilizing the typescripts listed in this Reference will find that they are labelled "FC," "FEC," or "SEC," in the upper left hand corner. The first stands for "Field Continuity," according to the FWP manuscript flow chart; FEC indicates "Field Edited Copy"; and SEC signifies "State Editorial Copy."
In practice, we translated FC to "Field Copy," meaning a typescript written by a field worker and as yet untouched by an editor's pencil. Whenever FC passed through a FWP district office--such as those in Tampa and Miami--and an editor therein touched it up and had it retyped, this fact was made known by changing the label to FEC, and the editor's name was written in the upper right-hand corner of the first page, across from that of the fieldworker. The copies proceeded from district office to the state office in Jacksonville. The chart called for an original going to a consultant and a carbon to Jacksonville; but this was seldom if ever practiced, any routing to consultants being done by the state office.
In Jacksonville, Dr. Corse read virtually everything and made marginal comments or calls for expansion, documentation, deletion, etc. She almost never wrote or re-wrote anything, and passed it on to either the state editor or the assistant state editor. During my tenure these posts were respectively filled by Roland Phillips and Robert Cornwall. Often these two did fairly extensive pencil editing and typed inserts that were attached with rubber cement. Cornwall did the bulk of editing for
form and style, and he also served as focal-point for "farming out" typescripts to other members of the editorial staff when extensive research and rewriting had to be done.
A great deal of copy went into the "State Work Files" and stayed there. Copy destined for publication after being edited and retyped was relabelled SEC and forwarded to Washington. At the point of final typing, all names signifying the authorship and editorship were eliminated, although in some few instances the identity of the fieldworker was made known to Washington in a letter of transmittal.
The flow of copy from the originating fieldworker through a series of editors to Washington allowed for modifications dictated by class, educational, racial, political, or philosophical bias. Such "slanting" was commonplace. Some changes were made with a view to avoiding the ire of political or business interests, or the general public. Some were based on more individual perspectives. FWP treatments of folklife were as subject to interpretation, conscious and unconscious, as any cultural observations written today. Very often, however, the FC gave the most accurate description, and told it better, before inhibited editors left their marks. Although many a verse, song, and tale were modified or deleted for reasons of "propriety" or prudery, we were as meticulous in recording folklore to capture the actual words of the informant as it was possible to be without benefit of tape recorders.
The socio-economic-political milieu in which the Florida Writers Project went about the recording of the folklife of the State during the latter half of the 1930's inevitably had a great deal to do with what we looked at, how it appeared to us, what we wrote and did not write, what we published and did not publish. The white/black relationship was generally regarded as a fixed one, and therefore not a fit subject for commentary. The specifics of racial discrimination, on the other hand, could sometimes be pointed to in passing, provided this was done without rancor.[Page 9]
In October 7, 1935, Edward R. Rodriguez, assistant state director of the National Youth Administration who maintained his office in all-black Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, wrote Alsberg, advising:
"Already from several points in the State, committees of Negroes have made application for some part in the set-up of Writing, Drama, Music, and Art only to be told that it is too late... I am asking that you, in your wisdom and knowledge of the situation, do put forth every effort to see that our people receive their portion of such projects."
Alsberg replied on October 14, "You may be sure that I shall do everything to see that there is no discrimination whatever... May I say that it is certainly not too late for a writer on relief to find a place either on a local writers' project or on the Guide work." He referred Rodriguez to Dr. Corse, who had just been appointed.
On February 20, 1936, the Washington office authorized Corse to establish a Negro Unit of "not more than ten workers," and earmarked $2,000 to pay them until May 15. On March 5, Corse advised that the complement of ten had been filled, and asked Alsberg to "Please forward suggestions you may have regarding assignments for Negro workers." By December 16, 1936, Corse wrote Dr. Sterling Brown, who had been hired to serve as the FWP's National Editor of Negro Affairs, that she had been obliged to cut the quota of the Florida Negro Unit in June from ten to eight and that a further funding cut December 15 had obliged her to slash the Unit to three.
The principal producers at the Negro Unit were Martin Richardson, Alfred Farrell, James M. Johnson, and Samuel Johnson. In Florida, few if any other Project writers exceeded these four in the quantity of their production, and the quality was above the capacity of any of the white editors to improve upon. Other names which appeared on the roster of the Unit from time to time included
Rebecca Baker; typist Ruth B. Boltin; Viola Muse; Pearl Randolph; John A. Sims, listed as Editor on much of the copy; and Robert T. Thomas, as Assistant Supervisor in 1937.
In all my years in the state office, I do not recall there ever being editorial conferences in which blacks participated. Manuscript from the Negro Unit came to us by mail or messenger, and every two weeks they sent someone for their paychecks.
In the summer of 1937, Dr. Corse received notice that Brown would be in Jacksonville July 23, to confer with her "regarding editorial procedure," "inspect the Negro projects," and "assist in editing material to be used in the Negro section of the Florida state book." An undated three-page critique of the "Racial Elements in Florida" chapter, presumably by Brown, starts off with the general commandment "Capitalize word Negro" and includes such caustic comments as "there is no such thing as a 'Negro shanty' style of architecture," and "social work among Negroes is scanted, as is everything else concerning the Negro."
America in the 1930's was veritably a nation of Archie Bunkers, and Florida was very much a part of the union when it came to racial, class, religious, and occupational stereotyping. With such stereotyping in the cartoons, films, politics, press, radio, and theater of the day, it would have been remarkable indeed if the pages produced by the Florida Writers Project had not reflected the same standard biases. There was at the time a culture of prejudice and discrimination, and, concurrently, a culture of protest and struggle.
This societal reality was nowhere more manifest than in the attempts of the Project staff to portray the folklife of Florida, and above all that of black Floridians. Jim crow kept watch over the shoulders of white and black writers alike, giving rise to varying degrees of pejorative and paternalism on pages produced by the former and sometimes deference and ingratiation in the pages of the latter. It was a form of job insurance for both parties.
When using materials listed in this Reference, the researchers will want to be on the lookout for such distortions. In short, the FWP "mirror on Florida" provides unconscious insights not intended by either its authors or editors.
The idea of interviewing former slaves who were still alive in the mid-1930s--70 years after Appomattox--is said to have originated at Hampton University. It was picked up by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the innovative predecessor to WPA, and carried forward by the WPA's Writers' Project.
Because many of the ex-slave interviews were conducted by white fieldworkers, there has been speculation in academic circles, fueled by the publication of the narratives at various times and places, as to the credibility of the texts. No such skepticism is in order insofar as the Florida narratives are concerned: the great majority were done by interviewers who were themselves black, and in the mid-thirties, when most of the interviewing was done, there was little reason for a former slave--years removed from bondage--to do anything but "tell it like it was" to another black. Even in talking to a white interviewer, "Mama Duck" on the outskirts of Tampa felt free to say about former owners, "I done prayed and got all the malice out of my soul, and I ain't gonna tell no lies for 'em or on 'em!"
Prior to my coming of board, the "Negro Unit" had produced thousands of pages of typescript in addition to ex-slave interviews on such subjects as Occupations, Education, Politics, History, Culture, Religion, etc. The quality of all this copy, both as to form and content, was if anything equal or superior to that being generated by the white staff for The Florida Guide. Initially the material was condensed into a chapter on the Florida Negro for inclusion in the Guide, but this idea was scrapped in favor of fragments being scattered about in the manuscript. A separate book, The Florida
Negro, was also projected. A so-called "1936 version," consisting of 167 pages, was already on the shelf when I arrived.
Although the mass of finished copy emanating from the Negro Unit was excellent in every respect, its "condensation" into the manuscript The Florida Negro bore all the earmarks, in tone and content, of being the creation of white rewrite artists on the state editorial staff. Of its 16 chapters, 10 were devoted to such subjects as Hoodoo, Conjure Shop, Bolita, Workday Songs, Diversions, Religion, Spirituals, Folklore, Notable Negroes, and Unusual Communities. To the best of my recollection, there was not one word about segregation, discrimination, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, health, or civil rights. Moreover, the tone reeked of all the chauvinism, stereotyping, condescension, and and paternalism characteristic of white attitudes at the time. I took the manuscript under my wing, resolved to do what I could with it.
One day in May of 1938, Dr. Corse called the state editorial staff into her office and announced that "Zora Neale Hurston is coming on board." Zora, it seems, had signed on as a "Junior Interviewer," just as I had six months earlier, and at the same rate of pay. At the time Hurston had already published Jonah's Gourd Vine and Mules and Men, which meant she would be the only widely published author on the Florida project's payroll.
Not only was Zora signing on, but she would soon be paying a state visit to the state office. Unaccustomed as we were to receiving blacks of any description, Corse cautioned us that Zora had been lionized by New York literary circles and was consequently given to "putting on airs," including the smoking of cigarettes in the presence of white folks, and we would therefore have to make allowances. And so Zora came, and Zora smoked, and we made allowances...
There was much ado in Washington and Jacksonville upon the hiring of Zora to the effect that she would edit The Florida Negro for publication. A copy of the manuscript was placed in her hands, but all of Zora's talents and experiences were in the realm of writing, not editing. Corse, in subsequent letters to Washington, remarked that Zora was so busy with other things that she had little time to devote to this project.
In those days, protest loomed large in black lore, which was really the only medium in which it was permitted. If it didn'st rhyme and you didn'st dance a jig the while, you were dead. Zora was at great pains never to send in a single scrap of this protest material, and if she ever collected any, it must have perished in the gardener's housecleaning fire that followed her death.
Although Zora was frequently referred to, particularly in correspondence to and from the Washington office as our "Negro Editor," or "Supervisor of the Negro Unit, " to the best of my knowledge she never had a FWP desk in Jacksonville, or anywhere else for that matter. Like rather many of our fieldworkers, myself often included, she worked out of her home, which was in the all-black municipality of Eatonville on the outskirts of Orlando.
Hurston's production was sporadic, as was many writers's who were on their own in the field, again myself included. There were times when those in the office did not hear from Zora for several weeks. Periodically, Dr. Corse would pop out of her office (she never merely emerged), look around the editorial room, and ask, "Anybody heard from Zora?" When we all looked blank, Corse would look at me and say, "Better write her a letter and jog her up!"
In response to my letters, we would receive a thick packet of fabulous folksongs, tales, and legends, possibly representing gleanings from days long gone by. We did not care how, where, or when Zora had come by them--each and every one was priceless, and we hastened to sprinkle them through the Florida Guide manuscript for flavoring. She also wrote a compendium of black folklore
titled "Go Gator, and Muddy the Water," which began with the memorable definition, "Folklore is the boiled-down juice, or pot-likker, of human living." Some bits of it were inserted into The Florida Guide as well, but the script as a whole was never incorporated into The Florida Negro manuscript.
As the FWP evolved, writers compiled material under headings of Folklore, Life History, Social-Ethnic Studies, and Ex-Slave Interviews. In Florida, the FERA had produced an in-depth study of Tampa's Latin community entitled "Sociological Survey of Ybor City" and a study of "The Greeks of Florida." When the FWP began, a companion study of the Florida Seminole was made; and Darrel McConkey, a field representative from the FWP Washington staff, wrote Alsberg on September 9, 1936, that "there is every indication that the Florida Guide material on the Seminoles will be more complete than anything that has yet been written." Rather much attention was given to nationality groups under the heading of "Odd Pockets."
Alsberg became increasingly aware that the Guides would be inadequate vehicles for the vast wealth of cultural materials that kept pouring into the state and national offices. Out of this realization there came on July 19, 1938, a manual of "Instructions of Social-Ethnic Studies." By September of 1938, the FWP's "Folklore Department" in Washington was expanded to include Social-Ethnic Studies and Life Histories as distinct program thrusts.
The intent of Social-Ethnic Studies was to celebrate the cultural diversity of America. To provide national direction in this area, Alsberg hired Dr. Morton W. Royce to head the Program. Royce had two doctoral degrees from Columbia, one in law and the other in philosophy. He came highly recommended by scholars as a man of "well-defined social philosophy...and unlimited courage and energy."
Royce lost no time in addressing himself to the FWP's state directors. "We are preparing an unusual nationwide study which will require the cooperation of all state Projects," he wrote.
In this ethnic study, provisionally called Composite America, we shall try to reconstruct the building of our country, from colonial days to the present, and present the contemporary scene with all its variety and richness, with particular stress placed on human relationships and values.
"The building up of our country knows no parallel in historical times--in the influx of peoples from all ends of the earth, and in the freedom and opportunity which beckoned to the impoverished and oppressed of all lands. How a social and cultural unity was achieved by these people, without stamping cultural differences into one mold, producing the unique American civilization, and how the fabric of American democracy was progressively enlarged, is the crux of our story."
The organizational plan for Composite America called for nationwide studies of nationality groups, occupational groups, and the ethnic patterns of entire communities. In time, 160 of these were underway. "The Cubans in Florida," begun by the FERA, as well as a more expansive study, "The Greeks in Florida," and a third study on the Minorcans were completed under Royce in 1939. Veronica Huss, a native of Belle Glade, did an exhaustive study of the Bahamian "Conch" fisherfolk at Riviera. During his first year, Royce launched enough ethnic and occupational studies to occupy the FWP's staff for a decade, yet the only one published during his brief tenure was The Albanian Struggle in the Old World and the New, produced in Massachusetts.
The compilation of life histories was a major aspect of the FWP's endeavors in the realm of folklife. FWP used the term "Life Histories" rather than "Oral Histories," as is the vogue in the latter half of this century, because our emphasis was upon obtaining autobiographical accounts in the context of
the informant's occupational and cultural background, rather than historical data about a given geographical area. We experienced no shortage of would-be informants. Then as ever, it seemed that everyone who had done any living felt that his or her "life story" would make good reading.
At first our fieldworkers were inclined to go after examples of some of the more exotic professions such as prostitutes, fortune tellers, and witch doctors. While not spurning any of these, I impressed upon them the necessity of covering as many as possible of the mainstream, typical occupations of Florida such as lumbering, turpentining, phosphate mining, cattle raising, fishing, dirt farming, and the like.
Dr. W.T. Couch, Director of the University of North Carolina Press at Chapel Hill, who had already been designated Southeastern Regional Director of FWP, was put in charge of the national Life History Program. Couch promptly pulled together a collection of life histories from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia and published them in 1939 under the title These Are Our Lives. Critical reactions to the life histories were enthusiastic, and in May 1939, Couch proposed to Alsberg another volume to consist entirely of people on relief (welfare). On June 30, Couch was summoned to Washington to meet with Alsberg, Botkin, Royce, Sterling, Brown, and others to discuss closer collaboration between the three folklife components. Out of the meeting came a directive for Counch to send copies of all incoming life histories to Washington for possible inclusion in Folklore and Social-Ethnic Studies.
With the advent of World War II, the manuscripts of The Conch of Riviera, Florida Greeks, Florida Latina, and The Florida Negro were permanently shelved. By that time, 39 School Readers dealing with occupations, flora, fauna, legendary characters and other categories of Floridiana had been published (in mimeograph form) under the aegis of the State Department of Education, but many
more, on such subjects as "Cowboy Frolics," "Cracker Children," "Crop-Ear Charley," "Traplines," and "Florida Place Names," never made it.
In 1939, the Florida project borrowed a recording machine from the Library of Congress. The fact that Zora Neale Hurston had worked with the machine on a recording expedition with Alan Lomax in 1935 may have been a factor in our being entrusted with the cumbersome device. Nevertheless, we were very glad to have the machine and Zora. I never heard any discussion which so much as considered sending out an "inter-racial" team. Those were the days when so innocent a gesture as a white man lighting a black woman's cigarette could get them both lynched. The solution, handed down to me from above, was to send Zora ahead as a sort of "talent scout" to identify informants.
The machine was used by a variety of people. I headed the expeditions that recorded the bulk of the thousands of Florida folk items sent to the Library of Congress. The remainder of my "team" consisted of FWP staff photographer Robert Cook. During his years with the project, he took tens of thousands of photographs, now all missing. Dr. Corse and assistant state editor Robert Cornwall did some recording in the Jacksonville area and on the Seminole reservations in the Everglades. Nell Howze of the Florida Music Project recorded Minorcan lore in St. Augustine as well. From time to time, we also loaned the equipment to Dr. Alton C. Morris at the University of Florida. I went with him to record the Greeks of Tarpon Springs. On other occasions, other FWP staffers lent him assistance. When Herbert Halpert of the national staff of the Music Project made a sever-state southeastern tour in 1939 and wound up in Jacksonville to record Zora (herself), Corse, Cornwall, and I were there to prod
Zora (as if she needed any). The recorded materials went to us as well as to the Library, leaving everyone pleased.
In the recording experience, I invoked my earlier directive to fieldworkers to commence operations in any given community by first seeking out "the" pre-eminent leader, to explain the project and procure blessings upon it. This approach never failed to allay any apprehensions informants might have--although we sometimes had to explain in detail that we were not exactly "the government."
If my memory serves me correctly, our very first stop was the Eartha White Mission on Ashley Street, in the heart of Jacksonville's black ghetto, or "colored town" as we politely said then. The Mission was also the home of our "Negro Unit." The staff of the unit had surveyed the "soup kitchen scene" and listed some of the spirituals we could expect to record there. Instant playback was among the range of capabilities of our infernally-heavy machine, and having discovered that this feature was as infallible means of transforming even the most reticent informant into a ham actor, as soon as we had recorded "Lord, I'sm runnin, tryin to make a hundred; ninety-nine-and-a-half won'st do...," I played it back.
"Hold everything right there!" Eartha White commanded. "We'sre going to have a little prayer." What she prayed was:
Dear Lord, this is Eartha White talking to you again. We just want to thank you for giving mankind the intelligence to make such a marvelous machine, and for giving us a President like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who cares about preserving the songs people sing.
Such incidents were to be almost commonplace as we toted the machine down, around, and across Florida.
Having vague apprehensions that the Lomaxes, Zora Hurston, and other folklore collectors had pre-emptied the field (not so, I found), I tended to conclude sessions by asking informants if they knew any "dirty" songs, feeling this might be a neglected genre in which I could pioneer. In Key West,
Bahaman black Theodore "Tearoll" Rolle responded that he knew plenty, but would not sing any with ladies present. I scheduled a "men only" session for early the next morning in the A. M. E. church, of all places. Long before the appointed hour, the ground floor windows were all filled with the heads of women, but "Tearoll" obligingly sang anyway.
On another occasion, Cook and I arrived at a sprawling turpentine camp near Cross City. Good scout Zora was still there, sitting on the porch of a shack, smoking (and was peeved when I took a candid picture without permission). It was unusual that she had not departed prior to our arrival, and unusual that she had turned in a page of cryptic handwritten notes such as "a hand tried to run away last week, and the sheriff had all the roads guarded"..."there is a grave not far from here of a hand they beat to death"..."a woman told me she cooks, cleans, washes and irons all for $2.25 per week."
After recording some songs around an open campfire at night, I picked up on Zora's leads by putting on my cap as director of Social-Ethnic Studies and asking questions about such things as peonage and the commissary system. When I did, my informants promptly posted sentries.
"Don'st you know that in this country nobody can make you work against your will?" I asked.
"They do do it," came the laconic reply. "And if you tries to leave, they will kill you; and you will have to die, because they has folks to bury you out in them woods."
After I had recorded a good deal of such as this, a sentry dashed into the firelight, whispering:
"Here come The Man--sing somethin quick!"
As we drove off through the gates of the Cross City camp and the woodsrider bade us farewell, he asked, "Who was that colored gal who came in here ahead of y'sall? She was right smart for a colored girl. --Of course, I figured she was about three-fifths white."
The terrorism was real, not fancied, and a constant in the recording of the folk material in those days, at least in the South.
It was standard journalistic practice in those days to signify to editors and typesetters that a given story had come to its end, with no more pages to follow, by typing -30- at the bottom of the final page. This symbol is to be found on rather much of the copy produced by the FWP. In 1943, Congress wrote -30- to the entire Federal Writers Project, by which time only a caretaker crew remained on duty in the Florida state office. It was decided that one set of the uncounted cubic feet of unpublished typescript would be placed with the Florida History Division of the University of Florida Library in Gainesville, and a more-or-less duplicate set with the Florida Historical Society, now located in the University of South Florida Library, Tampa. Much smaller portions went to the Florida Room of the Jacksonville Public Library and the Jacksonville University Library.
When the sets had been deposited and there were still rows upon rows of bulging file cabinets destined to be dumped into barrels and stored for the statutory number of years before burning, I pulled what I could from the folklife sectors and guarded it for half a century against fire, flood, insects, and mice. Floods did come, and I had to spread it in the sun to dry; and mother mice did chew up quite a few pages to make nests for their young, which for all I know may be just as important as the marks we made upon them. Then, on the eve of what turned out to be an eight-year jaunt overseas, I entrusted it all to a former playmate of mine, Richard Suddath, who was in the storage business. When I finally returned and gave him a call, he said that each year it had been wheeled out onto the sidewalk to be auctioned for non-payment, at $.50 per barrel as scrap paper. And each year, "for old times sake," he had ordered it wheeled back, in case I ever showed up again.
In 1988, I conveyed my collection to the Florida Department of State's Bureau of Folklife for deposit in the Florida Folklife Archives at White Springs, and the bureau committed it to computers with support from the Florida Endowment for the Humanities. Portions of it do not duplicate the materials that the bureau procured earlier from the Library of Congress. So posterity has Father Time, Mother Nature, Mrs. Mouse, and Richard Suddath, among others, to thank for the survival of the papers.
It is gratifying to me, as one of the few surviving veterans of Florida's first venture into the realm of public sector conservation and propagation of cultural resources, to see our State, after the lapse of a half century, again fulfilling a vital public service through its Bureau of Florida Folklife Programs. By computerizing and cataloguing what the FWP collected and adding it to what others have been collecting since, an incredibly rich seed bank of cultural resources is being created for the enrichment of the quality of life of all future generations of Floridians.