by Tim Gilmore, 8/26/2017

Florida Shangri-La

Friends urged Stetson Kennedy to leave Florida. He’d infiltrated the Klan and reported to the FBI. In a book as riveting as anything by Dashiell Hammett, he presented, in noir style, information he’d compiled from various sources as the work of one Klanbuster. The French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre published I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan, later renamed The Klan Unmasked, in Paris in 1954 when Kennedy was living in France.

“But Florida is my birthplace,” Kennedy writes in The Klan Unmasked, “and I am attached to it. I did not want to give the Klan the satisfaction of forcing me to abandon Beluthahatchee.”

Kennedy said the name came from Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist and novelist and Kennedy’s longtime friend, who claimed “Beluthahatchee” was a “Florida Shangri-La, where all unpleasantness is forgiven and forgotten.”

As Veda and I traverse the dirt path from State Road 13 in St. Johns County, a barred owl swoops through the trees before us on brown and white banded wings. The next morning, volunteers at a nearby bird refuge release two rehabilitated hawks here where Kennedy wrote After Appomattox and Woody Guthrie slept in a hammock and wrote songs.

The Klan had threatened Kennedy by name in its newspaper and let him know they knew where he lived. Since Kennedy believed he had “more material on the Klan than the Klan had on itself,” he decided to move his archives from Beluthahatchee and store them at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Stetson Kennedy visiting the House Un-American Activities Committee, seeking in vain to get them to investigate the Klan in 1946.

Then someone came through the door with an ax. Kennedy and his wife came home one evening from a lecture tour to find their home ransacked. Their furniture was gone, the floors were littered with trash, and the plumbing and wiring was completely dismantled.

The couple was exhausted. They couldn’t know for sure they were safe. Nevertheless, they made a place on the floor among the debris and slept on their coats.

In the morning, Kennedy saw that his citrus trees had been uprooted and stolen. He found materials from his files, everything but the Klan documents he’d sent to New York, floating among the cypress knees in the river.

A half century later, my daughter and I stand on the deck of the little cedar house Kennedy built on the river, really Lake Bethulahatchee, in 1973. Stetson’s stepdaughter Karen Roumillat points to an osprey nest at the top of a nearby cypress. The tree stands strong and glorious in the water.

Surely this avian architecture stands akin to Kennedy’s. These raptors balance homes made of sticks and driftwood and Spanish moss, weighing as much as 300 pounds, so lightly in the tops of trees.

When Kennedy returned from the riverbank to his wife, he approached her apologetically. “What do you say? I can’t ask you to stay.”

“You don’t have to,” she said, and they began to pick up the pieces. They replanted the grove and collected an arsenal of guns for the next Klan attack.

It’s a daredevil romantic story of commitment to activism, of soulmate camaraderie.

Stetson Kennedy would, however, marry several more times. When he died in 2011, his seventh wife, Sandra Parks, became his widow, and carries on the Stetson Kennedy Foundation.

Experience Lived and Dreamed

It was Karen’s bedroom when her mother, Joyce Ann, married Stetson Kennedy in 1972. Karen was 16 years old. Now it’s the Woody Guthrie Room. Beluthahatchee is a twice-named national literary landmark, in honor of Kennedy in 2013, but first for Woody Guthrie in 2003.

The archetypal folk musician, the nomadic songwriter who wrote “This Land is Your Land” and “Pastures of Plenty,” Guthrie wrote to Stetson Kennedy after reading his 1942 book Palmetto Country, comprised of Kennedy’s folklore research with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. Kennedy had worked with Alan Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston from the Clara White Mission in LaVilla. Guthrie said the book gave him “a better trip and taste and look and feel for Florida than I got in the 47 states I’ve actually been in body and tramped in boot.”

So Florida became Woody Guthrie’s 48th. When Kennedy drove up to the bus station in Jacksonville to pick him up, all he saw was a bum with a guitar case. When he asked Guthrie where the rest of his belongings were, the singer-poet said, “I’m wearin’ ’em.”

Woody Guthrie at Beluthahatchee

About three o’clock one a.m., after the Klan had threatened Kennedy repeatedly and vandalized the house, Guthrie, who’d been sleeping in his hammock, Kennedy, and several friends, both black and white, from up and down the road, beat back a fire blazing in the pines. The trees became cinders, but the friends saved the house.

A message left on the gate at the edge of the property on State Road 13 said, “Since Eighteen Hundred Sixty-Six / The Ku Klux Klan / has been riding and will / continue to do so as long as / the White Man liveth.” On the other side, another note said: “S.K. You are finished. / We have just begun –KKK.”

Strangers had been asking around labor union sites back in Jacksonville what anyone knew about Woody Guthrie. He’d sung about the Depression, wrote those “Dust Bowl Ballads.” What was he doing hanging around Stetson Kennedy’s place? Was he a Communist? What did that sign mean on his guitar? It said, “This machine kills fascists.”

courtesy Denver Public Library

While he tuned his guitar, a cigarette dangling from his lip, Guthrie ramble-’splained himself, trash-talk-praising a handful of poets, mumbling through his nose:

“I been standin’ here thinkin’ and drinkin’ and drinkin’ and thinkin’ and I wish I could outwhite Mr. Whitman and outburn Mr. Burns and outsand Mr. Sandburg and outpush Mr. Pushkin and come up with the answer to this KKK hatefire that keeps creepin’ along the yellow highway line goin’ and comin’ out there. And I just kinda believe that if us folks will work together same way we done here tonight we can stomp out that hellfire way on back past the gateposts and fencelines down all the highways and byways of America to the place where the stuff gets its first goddam start of the earthlife.”

Then he played the song he’d been tinkering with a little while, called it “Beluthahatchee Bill.”

Sometime in the last years of his life, here among the cypress trees and rattlesnakes and ospreys, Woody Guthrie pieced together the last draft of his autobiographical Seeds of Man: An Experience Lived and Dreamed.

Stained Glass and Ossifrage

The two things Karen Roumillat most fondly recalls about Stetson Kennedy are that “he made my mom very happy and he never tried to be my father. He was my stepfather. We always knew he was there when we needed him.”

When she steps through the front door, she smells “cedar with bacon,” because the house is built of cedar and Kennedy was a wonderful cook.

Her mother, Joyce Ann Kennedy, to whom Stetson was married for 33 years, who died in 2002, taught English to non-native English-speaking children for years at San Jose Elementary.

We walk through the kitchen past ornamentally hung hummingbird feeders made of gourds, an interior “bottle tree” grown of a column, like those that once stood guardian-’gainst-ghosts for shacks across the South and stand still in Eudora Welty’s WPA photography, and a gorgeous array of colored light through old bottles—gold and green, ocher and sky blue, milk glass, shades of sky and earth—“poor man’s stained glass,” Kennedy called it.

The wooden stairs are simple, and simple here is lovely, seemingly descended from the cypress and pines and risen from the riverbank. Stetson wrote from his study looking out over the deck that cantilevers over cypress knees and the still waters of Lake Beluthahatchee.

Less hidden in the underwood descending to the water is the Hart House, an octagon, open inside around a central hearth, built for Stetson’s close friend, Gerald Hart, Jacksonville attorney and city councilman, who married and lived here with Stetson’s first wife, Edith.

A rendering of Stetson by equally socially conscious artist Chip Southworth looks into the octagonal interior, where, on the second Sunday of each month, folk singers treat subjects like civil justice, the environment, and Florida folklife.

Chip Southworth’s portrait of Stetson Kennedy looks into the interior of the octagon house.

Veda and I walk the L-deck onto the lake and I picture Klan thugs emptying Stetson’s files into the water here 50 years ago and look up to the nest the Beluthahatchee ospreys have so recently departed for the season.

The name “osprey” traces back to Latin, avis prede, “bird of prey,” or perhaps back further to ossifragus, earlier Latin, “bone breaker.” I wish some ancient etymology pointed out the heights of these fairyland Florida waters, their space monumental as the crowns of tall and gloriously slow-growing trees.

Beluthahatchee Bill

The last thing Woody Guthrie heard before he died was his son Arlo’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Bob Dylan stopped by Woody’s deathbed. He wasn’t yet Bob Dylan. He was 19 years old, a nobody burning with the same passions that ignited his idol decades earlier. New York, New York. 1967.

New musicians were taking folk music to rock n’ roll. Though Woody’s dying upon hearing “Alice’s Restaurant” made sense as a Guthrie family joke, Arlo showed up at Beluthahatchee in the years after his father’s death, his tour bus parked in the woods alongside State Road 13 in the 1970s.

an image of Arlo Guthrie, from the Woody Guthrie Room at Beluthahatchee

In 1952, Woody Guthrie wrote from “Witchy Heavens, 49 Murders Courts” in Brooklyn to “Mr. and Mrs. Stetzlyne Kennedy, Beluthahatchee Bog Holes, South Jaxonsville, Florida,” to say he’d been reading We Charge Genocide and was basing new ballads on the treatise. Kennedy was one of several authors of We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government against the Negro People, a 1951 accusation against the U.S. government officially charged at United Nations meetings in Paris by an organization called the Civil Rights Congress.

Guthrie complains that most recording studios are afraid of “recording or printing down anything having to do with protests or politicks,” that most music producers “still don’t know how this genocide book shows us the best way out of this whole race hate shithole.”

He signs off saying, “There is no earthly ends to the great kinds of goods and benefits you can perform.”

Woody Guthrie wrote several songs for his good friend at Beluthahatchee, including “Kennedy, He’s that Man,” “Talking Stetson Kennedy,” and “Beluthahatchee Bill.”

Name that I was borned with, name that I’ve got still, / Rings out by the sound of Beluthahatchee Bill. / You Kluxers tried to scare me, with your words of swill, / But you’ll never scare me none, not Beluthatchee Bill. / Beluthahatchee Bill, old Beluthahatchee Bill, / Freedom-lovin’, freedom-huntin’, easy-ridin’ Bill. / You can swing me and hang me and beat me to your fill, / But you’ll never slack my speed none, not Beluthahatchee Bill.

I’m from down through South America, like mossy mossy moss. / I’m from up across old Canada where Paul Bunyan got so lost. / I’m from Pittsburgh beer and Gary steel and you know I tell you true, / When I tell you I’m a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew. / You tortured me with blow-torches, dumped me from your car, / You tried to burn my home up and set my woods on fahr. / You can dynamite my house and dig my grave upon the hill, / But you’ll never keep me in it, not Beluthahatchee Bill.

Beluthahatchee lands means Never Never Lands, / Never never bloodied by your goddamn bloody hands, / Never never caught in your lambskin kid-like traps, / Never never drained like these turpentine taps, / Never never scared by all your screams and squeals, / Never never done-in by all your dirty deals. / You can try your best to kill us, but you know you never will. / You won’t ever scratch a finger of Beluthahatchee Bill.