Lillian Smith

A Civil Rights Leader Ahead of Her Time

Lillian Smith was born on December 12, 1897, in Jasper, Florida. The seventh of nine children, Lillian was raised in comfort as her father was a prominent civic and business leader. Therefore, when her father lost his turpentine mills in 1915, the family simply relocated to their summer residence in Clayton, Georgia, on Screamer Mountain.

For the next seven years, Lillian bounced around, never settling in one place for long. She studied music and teaching at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, from 1915 – 1916 and at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1917 and in 1919. In between her studies, she taught school in a small mountain town and helped at her parents’ inn. In 1920, the inn was converted into the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls, an exclusive retreat for the South’s well-to-do daughters.

While Lillian liked the work at the camp more than the work at the inn, she was not fulfilled, which is why, in 1922, she accepted the director of music position at a girl’s Methodist school in Huzhou, China. She was not religious, but must have seen the position as an opportunity to not only use her education but also experience a completely different way of life.

While abroad, Lillian studied Chinese philosophy and saw first-hand the impact that Western Imperialism was having on the culture. She soon began to draw parallels between the subjugation of the Chinese people and the subjugation of black people in the United States. She found both situations deplorable. It was in the midst of this awakening that her parent’s failing health necessitated her return home in 1925.

Upon her return to Georgia, Lillian took over the day-to-day running of the Laurel Falls Camp and, upon her father’s death in 1930, took complete charge. Under Lillian’s hand, it quickly gained in popularity and everybody that was anybody attended.

The camp offered classes in art, music, drama, hiking, and horseback riding. Lillian, called Miss Lil by the campers, also offered something a bit more subversive: she taught the campers about the dangers of inequality and about the history of black people in America. Lillian was one of the first people to openly declaim the injustices of segregation. She believed that whites and blacks were equal, and it would take people, especially white people, speaking out and taking a stand for that equality to be achieved.

Lillian was also in the forefront by encouraging her girls to reject the traditional notions of “southern womanhood” and focus instead on self-sufficiency and self-determination. She told her girls they not only could but they should change the ways of the south. Lillian saw no hindrance in the ability to affect change simply because one was of the “fairer sex.” She welcomed open discussions and encouraged the girls to question the world around them and envision how they could make it better. Largely because of this influence, many of the girls that attended Laurel Falls went on to actively participate in the Civil Rights Movement.

It was during these early years that Lillian formed a life-long partnership with one of the camp-counselors, Paula Snelling. Paula and Lillian would remain a couple for their entire lives, but like so many other lesbian couples of the time, they stayed closeted.

Paula not only helped in the running of the camp, but also encouraged Lillian’s writing. Lillian had started writing as an emotional outlet. It wasn’t until 1936 that Lillian got an audience for those writings. Lillian and Paula started a quarterly magazine, Pseudopodia. It was renamed North Georgia Review in 1937 and then South Today in 1942. At its height, it reached a circulation of more than 10,000. Lillian used the magazine to denounce the injustices and poverty of the South and criticize all those that chose to ignore the problem.

She referred to segregation as “spiritual lynching” and even went so far as to say that living with such an institution corrupted the minds of women and children. Their magazine quickly gained notoriety as an open forum for liberal thought, especially since they encouraged not only white but black writers to submit their assessments and opinions of life in the South.

Lillian’s renouncements of segregation preceded Brown vs. the Board of Education by more than a decade and the Civil Rights Act by more than two decades. She was standing alone on Screamer Mountain. Out of respect for her family, many neighbors tolerated, but despised her. She commonly received hate mail and threats from arsonists. Despite this, she wasn’t about to back down.

She proved this when she shocked the nation in 1944 with the publication of her novel, Strange Fruit. Lillian used the story of a forbidden love affair between a black woman and a white man to address how living in a racist and segregated culture twists and corrupts the very nature of people. Strange Fruit was a #1 best seller, received national recognition, and was translated into 15 different languages. At one point, it was even made into a Broadway play. However, it was also critically denounced. Both Boston and Detroit banned the book because of lewdness and crude language and it was banned from being mailed through the US Postal Service. It took Eleanor Roosevelt asking her husband to get involved before the postal ban was lifted, and the ban in Boston remained until 1990.

Despite its commercial success, Strange Fruit failed to make waves in the literary world. So in 1945, Lillian and Paula closed their magazine so that Lillian could devote herself to her writing. Then in 1948, they closed the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls. The following year, she published a collection of essays called Killers of the Dream. Lillian had shied away from writing about the camp while it was open, but in Killers she broke that silence. It contained essays that challenged the South’s racist traditions and reiterated her views on segregation.

She emphasized the corruption that such an institution had on every soul that it encountered, including the girls who came through her camp. Despite the provocative nature of her collection, it was met with absolute silence from critics and the literary world.

No one even bothered to censure her work, it was as if they had decided that she no longer existed.

Again, this didn’t stop her. Not even repeated bouts with cancer, starting in 1950, quieted her message. Lillian and Paula held interracial meetings at their home and toured the South talking to both whites and blacks about racism, segregation, poverty, and the state of the South. Because of these interviews, Lillian was well-informed of the plight of black men and women.

Though she openly admired the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and corresponded with him regularly, Lillian refused to join his, or any other, groups that started forming all over the South. She would correspond with and advise many of these groups over the years, but she was also one of their critics. Any organization that fought to end racism without addressing the need to end segregation got a piece of Lillian Smith’s mind. Some of these criticisms would appear in articles that she wrote over the years for magazines and newspapers such as “The Defender,” “The New York Times,” “Life,” “Redbook,” and “McCall’s.”

In 1954, she published The Journey, an account of her travels and interviews through the South, interwoven with an account of her battle with cancer. Then in 1955, she published Now is the Time, her response to the Brown vs The Board of Education ruling. In this piece, she called for nation-wide compliance with the ruling and deemed it, “Every child’s Magna Carta.” Likely in response to this latest piece, two white boys set fire to her house. She had been threatened by arsonists for years, but this was the first time that any of the threats were carried out. Neither Lillian nor Paula were hurt, but thousands of letters and unpublished manuscripts went up in flames. It took Lillian several years to rebound from this set-back, which was coupled with another bout of cancer.

Her next publication came in 1959, with One Hour, a scathing attack on McCarthyism, followed by Memory of a Large Christmas in 1962, and Our Faces, Our Words in 1964. This last was a piece praising the non-violent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until 1966 that Lillian’s contribution to literature and civil rights was officially recognized when Fisk University awarded her the Charles S. Johnson Award for her scholarly contributions on race and the South. Shortly after accepting this award, Lillian lost her last fight with cancer and died on September 28, 1966.

In 1968, the Lillian Smith Book Award was introduced to award authors who carry on her legacy. It is the oldest and best known book award in the South. As her award became more widely known, a resurgence of interest in her work began. A collection of her writings was published posthumously in 1978 and a collection of letters in 1993. In 1999, Lillian was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement, and in 2000, into the Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame. The Lillian E. Smith Center for Creative Arts can now be found where the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls stood. It functions as a retreat where artists and writers can escape and create, because despite all of the work that she did to catalyze social reform, Lillian Smith actually wanted to be remembered as a creative writer. She simply found it impossible to sit back and ignore the injustices around her.
*Originally appeared in Business Heroine Magazine