Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942


Browse Collection by:

View more collections from the American Folklife Center

Collection Connection
Classroom resources for teachers

A Florida Treasure Hunt

Our Patchwork Peninsula

Even before being "discovered" by Europeans, the Florida peninsula was inhabited by a wide variety of native American peoples, of differing ethnicity, language, and culture. In colonial times, the Spanish, French, and English (not to mention polyglot pirates) put down sparse roots, but when the new-fangled "Americans" took over in 1821 they found no more than eight thousand "non-Indians," a majority of whom were Spanish.

When in 1935 — a century later — the Florida Writers' Project launched its folklore hunt, the ethnic population consisted in the main of white "Crackers" and African American "Negroes," most of whose ancestors had moved in from Georgia and Alabama.1 (At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 there were actually more blacks than whites in Florida.)

One of the first "hunts" conducted by the Florida project was to seek and write down the oral histories of "ex-slaves," as we called them. There were rather many still alive, in their seventies and eighties, who for the most part had known slavery as children or young adults.

When possible, the Florida project employed members of each ethnic group to research their own people. As a result of our black-on-black policy, the Florida ex-slave interviews are said to be superior to those obtained in other states where white interviewers were used.

Some ex-slaves, however, were not at all reticent about "telling it like it was," regardless of the color of the caller. One such was "Mama Duck," who lived in an abandoned "courtin' shack" on the outskirts of Tampa. She told her white interviewer, "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!"

When I assumed leadership of the folklore hunt in 1937, I followed this same "do-it-yourself" policy in assigning researchers to work with their own people — which in Florida meant Latins, Greeks, and a few other "odd pockets," as we called them then. So, when a Yankee Indian (Oswego, with a Ph.D. from Harvard) applied for one of those $37.50 fortnightly jobs, I sent him into the Everglades, with the thought that "our Seminoles" might tell him some secrets they would not tell us Anglos. Alas, we never heard from him again.

1. The term "Cracker," while now more widely known as a derogatory term for rural whites, has a more specific — and less insulting — definition in Florida. The Florida "Crackers" are whites of Celtic descent who first settled South Florida around the mid-eighteenth century. "Crackers" usually migrated to the Florida Everglades from Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas, drawn to the fertile land for ranching and farming, and the peninsula's plentiful resources for fishing. The name's origins have been disputed, but the Celtic nature of Cracker culture — from musical styles to occupational choices — is indisputable. (Return to Text)