Lillian Smith: One Writer’s Brave Journey

Lillian Smith was a highly-acclaimed writer, successful business woman, a creative educator, an early civil rights advocate, and one of the most effective champions of social justice in the 20th century. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally excerpted in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Her best-selling first novel, Strange Fruit, was published in 1944 and told the story of an inter-racial love affair in a rural Georgia town shortly after World War I. Although she lived most of her life in Georgia, Smith was born in 1897 about 90 miles east of Tallahassee in the small town of Jasper, in Hamilton County, Florida.   She was the seventh of the nine children of Calvin Warren Smith and Anne Simpson Smith. The town of Jasper was founded in the 1830s, but it really didn’t begin to grow until shortly before Lillian was born with a rich trade in turpentine, tobacco, cotton, and pine lumber. Calvin Smith was one of the entrepreneurs in the area who capitalized on that trade with his business ventures in lumber and naval stores.

Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White
Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White

Lillian Smith spent all her childhood and the better part of her teenage years in this town. On many occasions throughout her life, she introduced herself with a story from her childhood years in Jasper, a story she later titled “Trembling Earth.” She said the land in North Florida is strange. She described it as “a thin little island that is hung on to the Okefenokee Swamp and hung on to the Georgia Islands and hung on to Alabama.” It felt like the ground was floating. Much later, as a seasoned writer, Lillian Smith used this image to describe the human experience: “I wonder if the whole, everything that happens to a human being is just like trembling earth? Is it all floating on something that we’ll never know, something unknown and mysterious?”

There’s little doubt that her years in Jasper shaped Lillian’s worldview for the rest of her life. As she put it, “No one could read my books without finding these early signs of my childhood,” which included telling stories to her friends, like Marjorie White. For a story to become vividly real, it needs a listener, and Marjorie played that role very well. As Lillian put it, “Her heart was lonely for what my heart was lonely for.” Near the end of her life, Lillian confided in a friend that when her family moved from Jasper when she was 17, the whole town was all frozen for her – she could go back in her mind and see all of it, and in a sense, she never left it.

When his Florida businesses failed in 1915, Calvin Smith moved the family to the small town of Clayton, in northeast Georgia, where he had recently acquired property on Old Screamer Mountain in his wife’s name and where the Smiths soon opened a summer camp for girls. During the 1915-16 academic year, Lillian Smith attended a small college thirty miles south of Clayton in Demorest, Georgia, called Piedmont College. Many years later, Smith wrote about her short tenure at the institution and expressed her gratitude for the fine instructors she had, some of whom were trained at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oberlin, Smith, and Cornell. Although she was offered a scholarship to continue at Piedmont for the next year, family obligations prevented her from returning.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and in her mid-twenties she served as the head of the music department in a Methodist mission school for girls in China. She witnessed terrible cruelty and repeated examples of discrimination and injustice. In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. With the demands of the growing summer camp operated by her family, Lillian Smith was obligated to leave China and return to Georgia in 1925 to help with the operation. She had different ideas from her father on how the camp should be structured, and with her parents’ blessing, she soon became the owner and director of the family-run business: Laurel Falls Camp for Girls. Moving far beyond the traditional hallmarks of summer camps, such as swimming, horseback riding, archery, arts, and crafts, Lillian Smith created a female community at Laurel Falls that challenged Southern conventions of gender, sexuality, religion, and race.

Through writing, drama, music, visual arts, and in-depth discussions, she instilled within her campers the importance of independent thinking, compassion, and confidence. Very few camp directors in the South were as bold as Lillian Smith in confronting the issues of segregation and racial inequality. Laurel Falls Camp continued through the late 1940s and developed quite a reputation. Lillian Smith did not manage the camp alone. A woman named Paula Snelling came to work for the Smith family for the summer of 1921 as an athletic director for the camp.  The two women formed a close friendship after Smith returned home and took over the camp, an intimate and loving relationship that developed and grew into a life-long partnership.

Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling
Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Lillian Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 1953. Later that year, her third book, titled The Journey, was published. The book expresses the author’s hope for humanity and her belief in our infinite possibilities. The final paragraph of the book begins with this sentence that exemplifies this optimistic vision: “To believe in something not yet proved and to underwrite it with our lives: it is the only way we can leave the future open.” Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality, all of which were written from her home on Screamer Mountain. She died on September 28, 1966 and was buried there. Paula Snelling suffered a stroke in 1979 that left her partially paralyzed.  She died in 1985.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive and powerful books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. So many of the words we read from her works are just as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

My mother loved Indians. More accurately, she loved the traditional characterization of the Indians in American arts and crafts. It was a romantic view of the people who were inhabiting North America when Europeans began to migrate west and “settle” on the continent. My mother was not interested in bows and arrows, spears, or war paint. She collected inexpensive artwork (prints, plates, figurines, etc.) featuring lovely brown-skinned people in traditional Indian attire as they were portrayed by Hollywood, for the most part. I would be the last to criticize her taste because some of the pieces she decorated our house with were indeed beautiful. She probably didn’t know much about the history of the numerous nations and tribes that were scattered all across North America, and she didn’t need to in order to appreciate her image of the Indian.

When I was young, one of our family’s favorite vacation spots was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tourist mecca in the Great Smoky Mountains with attractions, miniature golf, sky-lifts, and shops selling everything from taffy to stuffed black bears. To get to Gatlingburg, we had to go through the smaller town of Cherokee, North Carolina, which is also the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. We always stopped in Cherokee because, in the 1960s, it was a place of wonder where local residents used about the only thing they had, their history and heritage, as a way to scrape out a living. The town had live bears wasting away in cages, shops filled with Chinese-manufactured Indian souvenirs, and the occasional celebrity walking around the town to be photographed with visitors. I had my picture taken with Jon Provost, whose name probably means nothing to most folks today, but to a young lad in the late 1960s, he was an almost grown-up version of a television hero: Timmy Martin, the boy who had a dog named Lassie.

I also remember that, along the roadside passing through Cherokee, there would always be local men, young and old, dressed up like Hollywood Indians. They wore leather loincloths and moccasins, were often shirtless, had their faces decorated with paint, and usually had full feather headdresses (for the record, the Cherokee traditionally did not wear full feather headdresses at all). Vacationers were expected to pay them for a photograph, and looking back, I can only hope that this type of enterprise was not their only source of income, although it certainly may have been. The town of Cherokee today still has a vestige of the tourist trap atmosphere of the mid-20th century, but much of the most deplorable exploitation I remember from my childhood is gone. Some would argue what has taken its place is just as bad. The tribe owns a fairly large casino resort in Cherokee operated by Caesars Entertainment under the brand Harrah’s. The Eastern Cherokee do not live on a reservation, which is defined as land given by the federal government to a tribe. They own 57,000 acres of land which they bought in the 1800s and which is now owned by them but held in trust by the federal government.

There is an attraction in Cherokee that has moved away from the trappings of my childhood memories and beyond my mother’s fantasies of the “noble savage.” It is a temporary refuge from the slot machines, the gift shops, and the traffic. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian offers a cultural and historical overview of the people of the southern Appalachian Mountains going back 13,000 years. Contrary to popular opinion about appropriate nomenclature, it is actually more acceptable and accurate to use the term “American Indians” than “Native Americans” when referring to the tribes that occupied the western hemisphere before European exploration began. Combining interactive video with intriguing displays, the museum invites visitors to take a self-guided tour complete with computer-generated imagery, special effects, and an extensive artifact collection.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The museum’s interpretation is divided into two permanent exhibits: “Story of the Cherokee” and “Emissaries of Peace.” The first exhibit follows the history of the Cherokee from the early origins when mastodons roamed the region, through the Woodland and Mississippian periods, contact with Old World explorers and conquerors, the tragic Trail of Tears removal, and up to the present day.  The second exhibit tells the story of Henry Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokees in 1762, and how he took Cherokee leaders to London to meet with King George III. These narratives are told through animation, audio-visual presentations, life-sized figures, artwork, and priceless artifacts.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is not a tourist trap designed only for entertainment or to perpetuate stereotypes about Indians portrayed in early motion pictures. It is managed by knowledgeable professionals who care about the Cherokee people’s heritage and dignity as an independent tribe. The executive director, James “Bo” Taylor, earned a degree in anthropology with a minor in Cherokee Studies from Western Carolina University. He has learned the Cherokee dances, which he performs regularly, and can read and write the Cherokee language. Taylor also teaches the Cherokee language in intensive ten-day immersion classes. The museum’s education director, Dr. Barbara R. Duncan, earned her Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since 1983. She has written and edited award-winning books about Cherokee history and culture, including Living Stories of the Cherokee and Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook (with co-author Brett Riggs).

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

In addition to exhibits, the museum offers workshops, performances, guided tours of the region, publications, and classes. The museum archives is a repository of thousands of books, photographs, manuscripts, personal papers, and digital collections, all of which are accessible to museum members and qualified scholars. Visitors to the museum can spend an hour or two strolling through the halls, or a day or two becoming completely immersed in the displays and collections. This facility is a real treasure and not to be missed by those who are truly interested in the story of the Cherokee Indians, or as they originally called themselves, Aniyunwiya, “the principal people.” Enjoy the casino, but take a break from the tables and check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and make sure to use part of your winnings to purchase a souvenir from the museum’s gift shop.