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.

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