Discovering Our New Home State: Missouri

My wife and I moved to Springfield, Missouri in December, 2018. Her new job prompted the transition from Georgia, the state where I was born and lived for 58 years. We are now settled into a house just outside the city limits in a convenient location and are enjoying the features that a city of 250,000 people can offer, including some great restaurants, plenty of outdoor activities, and an incredible music scene. When we refer to Springfield as a “city,” some of the natives chuckle. They think of it more as a large town, and indeed it does have the feel of one. The people we have met so far have been especially friendly and welcoming.

Over the last few months we have taken the opportunity to venture out from the Queen City (a familiar pseudonym for Springfield) to see other parts of Missouri. I had never visited the Show Me State until we came to visit in the fall of 2018, when the leaves were turning brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. Over the last four months, I have been to St. Louis, Kansas City, Lake of the Ozarks, Columbia, and Branson. Those road trips have taken me from the state’s east border to its west, to the south-central lake district, through the capital to the town of the flagship university, and close to the Arkansas state line in the southwest corner. What’s left? The northern third of the state and the southeast quarter, which are both quite rural.

While I have spent some time and covered a few miles in the Midwest, I didn’t know much at all about the countryside of Missouri before moving here. I have been pleasantly surprised with the beauty of the landscape. Most of the area I have explored is considered part of the Ozarks geographical region. The Ozarks are among the oldest eroded plateaus in North America, and the wearing away of soil over the course of about 200 million years makes them look like a collection of deep valleys between elevated plains. The tallest peak in Missouri is just under 1,800 feet. Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia in the foothills of Appalachia, tops out at 4,783 feet. It’s difficult for me not to compare the unfamiliar with what I know so well, and I find myself frequently seeing similarities between my old and new environs. What I have seen of the southern half of Missouri reminds me a great deal of the piedmont region of Georgia, with gently rolling hills and plenty of vegetation.

St. Louis is in every sense a real city, and it has the tall buildings, monuments, parks, and museums to prove it. My wife and I have been there twice together. Once was a work event for her, but we stayed overnight in the historic Union Station Hotel with its signature spectacular music and light show projected on the ceiling of the Grand Hall. Our second trip was for a weekend getaway when we took in a Cardinals baseball game, spent a few hours at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and visited the Gateway Arch and historic courthouse adjacent to the Mississippi River. We also strolled through Central Library downtown with its impressive exhibit hall.

St. Louis Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch
St. Louis Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch

Our weekend in Kansas City was also associated with a work event, which gave us the opportunity to see a soccer match with Sporting. We also spent a half day shopping and wandering around Country Club Plaza, where the Spanish-style architecture is just as interesting as the stores and restaurants. Of course, no trip to Kansas City would be complete without a taste of BBQ, and we stuffed ourselves with some scrumptious pulled pork and sides at a local franchise called Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue.

Country Club Plaza in Kansas City
Country Club Plaza in Kansas City

I took a solo weekend to work on a writing project at The Lodge of Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks. The Lodge was built in 1965, and it clearly would have been a top-of-the-line resort in its day. After undergoing a $15 million renovation in 2016, The Lodge still offers respectable accommodations and several special features including a multi-story indoor cascading waterfall, a Japanese garden, an indoor/outdoor pool, and a sizeable marina with the largest boats I have ever seen up close. The main restaurant was surprisingly good, where I enjoyed some of the best scallops I have had in a long time. The Lake of the Ozarks was formed in 1931 with the construction of Bagnell Dam on the Osage River. It has a long history as a thriving source of recreation and tourism for central Missouri. A recent book by Bill Geist titled Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America is a laugh-out-loud memoir of his days working as a teenager at his uncle’s resort, Arrowhead Lodge.

The Lodge of Four Seasons atrium
The Lodge of Four Seasons atrium

I started working as a special projects coordinator at Missouri State University Libraries in June, and on my first day at the job I accompanied the Dean of Libraries to Columbia, home of the state’s flagship University of Missouri. Columbia is a classic university town with fine architecture, cultural institutions, athletics, and a charming downtown. Naturally, Columbia has a thriving nightlife, perhaps best represented by Booches, a pub and pool hall dating back to the 19th century. An interesting fact about the town: when it was originally designed, a tract of land was set aside specifically for a university. We traveled through Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, that had recently suffered considerable damage from a strong tornado. The whole area was also struggling with terrible floodwaters courtesy of the Missouri River that had completely covered the small airport, destroyed some local businesses, and left homeowners living on their own “islands” accessible only by boat. Missouri certainly has its share of violent, unpredictable weather.

When we first began to consider the move to Springfield, we were happy to learn how close the city is to one of the most popular tourist towns in the Midwest. Branson has been welcoming vacationers to the Ozarks since it was incorporated in 1912. Among the first attractions was Marvel Cave, one of many underground caverns open to the public in Missouri. In 1960 the operators of the site opened Silver Dollar City, a small park modeled after a frontier town. Over the next few decades the site grew into a family-centric amusement park with roller coasters, children’s rides, and various forms of entertainment. The first music theaters began to open in Branson in the mid-20th century. By the 1980s, the town was bringing in major music stars such as Roy Clark. Eventually, other big names would move in to build their own theaters such as Boxcar Willie, Jim Stafford, Ray Stevens, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, and Dolly Parton. In recent years, the theaters have reduced in number, but other attractions have taken their place, such as water parks, museums, wineries, and more. We have visited Branson twice thus far, and on our last trip we had a fabulous dinner at the Osage Restaurant at Top of the Rock, a resort built by Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, which is headquartered in Springfield.

Top of the Rock near Branson, Missouri
Top of the Rock near Branson, Missouri

I had no idea how much Missouri would have to offer in the way of urban amenities, places of interest, and abundant natural resources. Our fair city also happens to be the official birthplace of Route 66, and Missouri is close to the heart of this iconic mid-20th-century roadway that linked Chicago to the west coast. Travelers through Missouri can still marvel at some of the quirky roadside attractions that are vestiges of the highway’s glory days: Meramec Caverns, a giant red rocking chair, Mule Trading Post, and Uranus Fudge Factory (pun absolutely intended). Our exploration of this diverse state has just begun, and I’m sure future blog posts will be devoted to what we find along the way.

The World Within: Lillian Smith’s Global Journey of Rediscovery

(Based on a lecture presented at Reinhardt University on June 27, 2019)

Lillian Smith is certainly not the most recognizable writer from the South, and now the light from her star is practically imperceptible in a literary sky illuminated by the likes of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty. I have written about her life as a writer and civil rights advocate in a previous post. During her lifetime Lillian Smith was a highly acclaimed author, successful businesswoman, a creative educator, and one of the most effective champions of human rights of her generation. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally featured in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Today, Lillian Smith is generally regarded as a respectable novelist who was among a handful of white liberals fighting racial discrimination in the South during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. But it is a mistake to limit Smith’s interests, passions, concerns, and influence solely to these parameters. With brutal honesty she exposed and fought injustice everywhere she witnessed it, while maintaining her characteristic Southern manners and eloquence. I would argue that there is no writer from mid-20th-century America whose work is more germane to the crises we face in 2019 around the world than Lillian Smith.

Lillian Smith, 1963; photo by Joan Titus
Lillian Smith, 1963; photo by Joan Titus

Like most people of the South in the early 20th century, and even the nation at large, Lillian Smith grew up in a racially segregated society. She was well schooled in the paradox that characterized Christian teaching of her region and her time, including the Methodist denomination in which she was reared. Jesus loved all the children of the world, but white children were inherently superior to black children. White children played with white children and black children with their own kind. There were white churches and black churches, just as God had intended it to be. These were among the unquestionable manners that made the post-bellum South tolerable to its white citizens who insisted on perpetuating a caste system 25 years after Reconstruction had made their earth tremble. These “truths” were accepted by Lillian’s Smith’s parents, both of whom had descended from slave-owning families.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music intermittently at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but she ultimately accepted the disappointing reality that her talent was insufficient for her dream of becoming a concert pianist. However, her training at Peabody prepared her for an opportunity that would change Lillian Smith’s perspective on almost everything and challenge all her preconceptions about her homeland. In 1922 at the age of 24, Lillian moved to China where she would remain for the next three years working as a piano teacher at Virginia School, a Methodist mission for girls from wealthy families in the city of Huchow. She was one of about a dozen westerners in a city of 250,000 in what was then a remote part of the country.

While working at Virginia School, Smith reported to a female principal who was liberal in her philosophy and had a deep appreciation for China’s rich culture and resources. Lillian immersed herself in that culture, learning from her students, their families, and from the people of Huchow. She read extensively during this time, exploring Chinese poetry and philosophy. She wandered through Buddhist temples and began to contemplate faith traditions other than Christianity. She also became familiar with the history and current events of India and South Africa. “Suddenly, the whole earth opened to me,” she wrote, “and I saw us as one people, as human beings, all aching for freedom, all longing for knowledge and understanding, all reaching toward the light of truth, all wanting to love and be loved.”

The 1920s were a turbulent time in China. The hopes and aspirations that inspired the Revolution of 1911 and the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty had been crushed shortly after the establishment of the Republic of China. The provisional government became a puppet of strong military leaders and ultimately disintegrated. By the time Smith arrived in 1922, the tenuous government was under a military regime. Ruthless provincial warlords were in command of much of the region, spreading terror as they mounted revolutions and counterrevolutions, exploiting rich and poor alike. Smith learned about the country’s turmoil from people who were intimately involved in the transitions of power. She met the sister-in-law of the President of the provisional government, a woman named Soong Mei-ling, but we are more familiar with the name she adopted after she was married: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, First Lady of the Republic of China.

It was in this environment that Lillian Smith began to see injustice and affronts to human dignity with fresh eyes. She was horrified by the effects of war on the Chinese people, specifically the lowest class of unskilled laborers, the coolies. She witnessed them being treated no better than slaves by soldiers who came through Huchow. She also recognized that some of the worst indignities were at the hands of Christians, even the people she worked with, who seemed to tolerate blatant abuse. In a letter to her father dated February 23, 1925, Lillian wrote, “All of it makes one wonder how Christians can sit by and say: ‘Of course war is wrong – but’. There is no ‘but’ to it.”

In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. She also had some wonderful memories of the country. During the early 1930s, she worked on a novel about China under the title, And the Waters Flow On, where she was exploring the connection between racism and sexual attitudes in a Chinese setting. Tragically, the manuscript for this novel was later lost in a fire at her home in Clayton. Like other southern writers, Lillian Smith made the connection between sexual attitudes and racism, but she did so with unusual fervor and explicitness. These connections were likely formed in her mind during the China years.

Her experiences in the Far East changed her at a deep level, which as it turns out, was not an unusual phenomenon for Smith’s generation of white southern liberals. Morton Sosna speaks to this pattern in his 1977 book, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue, published by Columbia University Press. Sosna writes, “An important influence upon Southern liberals was their experiences outside the South.  Even when they returned home, they found that residence elsewhere had added new dimensions to their views about the South’s racial situation.” For Lillian Smith, the parallels between the discrimination on opposites sides of the globe were crystal clear. Sosna continues, “Lillian Smith was shocked by white foreigners, including the missionaries, who established enclaves in China that excluded Chinese. She drew an immediate connection between what was occurring in China and life in her own native South.”

Many years after her return to the states, Lillian Smith continued to express her deep concerns publicly about social injustice, in her native South and elsewhere. She made references to the evils of white supremacy and imperialism in China but also in Russia, Burma, Java, and on the continents of Africa and South America. She stressed that people from around the globe were searching for a democracy that works, one they could trust. In a time where Americans believed their most valuable export was democracy, Lillian Smith said they had to prove they really believed in it by using a language the whole world understands: the democratic act.

She witnessed on the world stage in real time the tragic results of systematic race-based hatred. “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe,” she wrote. “It is just possible that even German Nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world for a long, long time.” Lillian Smith recognized that the South, by passing and enforcing Jim Crow laws, was trying to buy its future with a figurative currency that no longer existed: Confederate money. She expanded that metaphor when she wrote, “The new world will be found only when the people dream about it. . . .  And when we find it, we must buy it. Not with old Confederate bills of race slavery and prejudice and frustration; no. Not with the imperialistic British pound of arrogant exploitation; nor with blocked marks of madness and hate; nor with violence and death. But with the democracy of the human spirit, with intelligence, with creative understanding, with love, with life itself.”

In his article, “Lillian Smith, Racial Segregation, Civil Rights and American Democracy,” published in the Moravian Journal of Literature and Film in the Fall of 2011, Constante Gonzalez Groba notes that Lillian Smith adopted Gandhi’s view of the negative effect of segregation on the oppressed and the oppressors, a premise that she would return to many times during the struggle for civil rights in the South. According to Groba, Lillian Smith “was one of the first to see the transnational dimensions of the cultural and racial practices of her region, and one of the first to characterize the white dominance of the South as a colonial relationship.”

The outbreak of World War II and the unavoidable involvement of the United States in the global conflict was of great concern to Lillian Smith as it was to most people of her generation. She was not as repulsed by the physical part of war as she was the more permanent effects it had on minds and emotions. To her way of thinking, war was an extreme example of human segregation. She was convinced that the threat from abroad made it even more important for the races in America to understand each other. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from April 7, 1942, Smith wrote, “There is something heartbreakingly valiant about the young of the Negro race, so eager to prove to white America their willingness to die for a country which has given them only the scraps from the white folks’ democracy. There is resentment also; a quiet, strong resentment, running like a deep stream through their minds and hearts; something I think few white Americans are aware of, or want to face.”

Following the war, Lillian Smith made two trips to India. During the summer of 1946, she traveled as a member of Britain’s Famine Commission, an initiative to gain American support for India’s famine victims. Her second trip to the subcontinent in 1954-55 was much more substantive – a six-month visit with financial support from the U.S. State Department to gather material for a book comparing India and China. She had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and a number of other dignitaries, artists, and writers. The book project never materialized, but it is clear from her correspondence after returning from this second trip that Smith had immersed herself in the culture of India, especially the arts.

Given her work in advancing the cause of civil rights, it would be natural to assume that activism was Smith’s greatest passion, but that’s not the case. She expressed on numerous occasions how she disliked struggling against injustice, even racial discrimination. The idea of fighting for a “cause” was rather unappealing to her. She was much more interested in literature, poetry, painting, and music. Her humanitarian efforts were not as much a passion as they were a deep, moral obligation. In a letter to Richard Wright from June 12, 1944, she wrote, “I am not in the least interested in political movements or in being any kind of a reformer or political leader. Hence, I find myself avoiding – too much, I suppose – organizations. I simply want to say what I believe and say it my own way. I have an idea that you feel much the same about this. Because you do, I believe we together might be able to work out some suggestions for other writers that might encourage them to do more creative thinking and writing about our cultural problems, and yet leave them free of any ideological ties.”

By the late 1950s, Smith’s views about democracy and colonialism were reflecting over 35 years of reading and writing about world events and the shifting international political landscape. In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Killers of the Dream from 1961, she observed that Asian and African colonists thirsted for independence but not necessarily Democracy as the U.S. assumed. They wanted equality and would “trample the earth to get it.” They wanted their human rights and their recognition by the United Nations. What they hated and feared more than death were the symbols of oppression: segregation, apartheid, and colonialism. Smith urged Americans to listen to the desires of these young nations, whose leaders she feared may be driven to overcome their hurt dignity with racial supremacy, just as white Southerners embraced White Supremacy during Restoration in mutual hostility toward people of color. “African and Asian nationalists may harness the hatred of tribal hostilities” she said, “and turn it into hatred of whites who continue so stubbornly to think of themselves as superior.”

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 books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. Her fiction reflected her sensitivity to prejudice and injustice. Her travels abroad filled Lillian Smith with wonder and excitement, but she also let the experiences mold her conscience as well as her consciousness. She had a more inward view of the words of her contemporary, T. S. Eliot, who in his “Four Quartets” reminded us that after our explorations are over, we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time. Lillian Smith’s version goes like this: “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”