Smith, Lillian (1897–1966)

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Smith, Lillian (1897–1966)

American writer, civil-rights activist, and devoted Southerner who dedicated her life to educating Americans about the evils of prejudice broadly defined and to pressing white Southerners to recognize that segregation harmed them also. Born Lillian Eugenia Smith on December 12, 1897, in Jasper, Florida, a small community near the Georgia border; died of cancer in Emory Hospital, Atlanta, Georgia, on September 28, 1966; buried on Old Steamer Mountain, Georgia; daughter of Annie (Hester) Smith and Calvin Warren Smith (a merchant and later children's camp administrator); attended Piedmont College, 1916; Peabody Conservatory, 1917–20; Columbia University Teachers College, 1927–28; longtime companion of Paula Snelling, 1930–66.


Honor Roll of Race Relations, Schomburg Collection of New York Public Library (1942); Page One Award, Newspaper Guild of New York (1944); Constance Lindsay Skinner Award, Women's National Book Association (1945); Southern Authors Award, Special Citation National Book Award Committee; honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Howard University, and honorary Doctor of Letters, Oberlin College (1950); Georgia Writers Award (1955); Sidney Hillman Prize (1962); Queen Esther Scroll of Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress (1965); Charles S. Johnson Award of Fisk University (1966).

Family moved to Rabun County, Georgia (1915); helped her father run the Laurel Falls Hotel on Old Steamer Mountain; served as director of music, Virginia School in Huzhou (Huchow), a Methodist academy for wealthy Chinese girls in Zhejiang (Chekiang or Che-chiang) Province (1922–25); returned home to take over Laurel Falls Camp when father's health failed (1925); directed camp (1925–48); elected president, Macon Writers Club (1935); founded, with Paula Snelling, Pseudopodia (1936), name changed to North Georgia Review (1937) and to The South Today (1942); traveled the South with Snelling as Rosenwald Fund fellows to investigate racial and class divisions in education and employment; served as member of the Rosenwald Scholarship Committee (1942–44); was an active member of the board of the Southern Conference of Human Welfare (1942–44); Strange Fruit banned in Boston (1944); joined the boards of the NAACP, the ACLU, and CORE (mid-1940s); joined the Chicago Defender as weekly columnist (1948); learned of breast cancer (1954); teenage arsonists set fire to her home on Old Steamer Mountain, destroying library, manuscripts and correspondence; wrote Now is the Time to urge the South to comply with Brown v. Board of Education (1955); hospitalized for recurrence of cancer (1955); elected vice-chair, ACLU (1956); actively supported Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Montgomery Improvement Association; became advisor to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960); was traveling with Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was arrested for driving with an expired license in Atlanta (1960); rehospitalized for cancer (1962); actively worked with students challenging segregation, writing Our Faces, Our Worlds (1963) and advising Southern Students Organizing Committee; hospitalized twice for lung cancer (1964); defended Julian Bond's right to be seated in the Georgia Legislature (1965).

Selected writings:

(editor) South Today (1936–45); Strange Fruit (1944); Killers of the Dream (1949, rev. 1962); The Journey (1954); Now Is the Time (1955); One Hour (1959); Memory of a Large Christmas (1961); "The Ordeal of Southern Women," in Redbook (May 1961); "A Strange Kind of Love," in Saturday Review (October 20, 1962); Our Faces, Our Worlds (1963); "The Day It Happens to Each of Us," in McCall's (November 1964); "Old Dream, New Killers," in Atlanta Constitution (January 14, 1966).

On February 29, 1944, Lillian Smith's first novel Strange Fruit was published and created an immediate sensation. Set in a fictional town in southern Georgia, Strange Fruit tells of white Tracy Deen's love for black Nonnie Anderson and Deen's reluctance to confront the town's racial customs to marry the woman he loves. When Anderson becomes pregnant with Deen's child, Deen pays his employee Henry to marry Anderson and to claim the child as his own. Later when Deen is killed, Henry is unjustly accused of Deen's murder and is lynched by an enraged white mob.

Smith used this plot to tell a story "about the 'strange fruit' of our racist culture and show how that 'strange fruit'—Tracy, his sister, his mother, and Nonnie of course and all the people came out of our twisted way of life." She wanted to underscore the "restricting, rigid frame of segregation" and how that damaged "the children who grow up in it, who are forced to bind their feeling, their love and their fear, their hate and their dreams to this pattern."

By mid-May, Strange Fruit reached the top of The New York Times' bestseller list and reviewers began to give the novel serious attention. On May 20, responding to a complaint from a man who bought the novel for his daughter and who objected to the one-time use of a common four-letter verb describing intercourse, the Boston police labeled Strange Fruit obscene and banned sales. The literary scholar Bernard De Voto objected and immediately purchased the book in front of the Boston police to test the ban. He was arrested and the obscenity trial began.

Overnight, Lillian Smith became a literary sensation and, much to her dismay, the public began to treat Strange Fruit as a risqué romantic novel rather than a passionate indictment of Southern prejudice. "They aren't considering the racial problems laid bare in the book; nor the hypocrisy of the church; nor the strains in the family life; they are focusing entirely on the dirt," Smith complained to her friend Frank Taylor.

While sales continued to increase, the ban in Boston held firm and the postmaster of the United States tried to keep the book from being distributed through the mails. This mail ban held until Eleanor Roosevelt , a friend of Smith's, interceded with Franklin Roosevelt who overruled his postal director. The novel continued to sell very well, and Smith later adapted it for Canadian and Broadway theater companies. The controversy catapulted her into national prominence as a writer and as a passionate opponent of segregation and racial and sexual prejudice.

There is a problem facing each of us, black and white, but it is not the "Negro problem." It is the problem, for Negroes, of finding some way to live with white people. It is the problem, for whites, of learning to live with themselves.

—Lillian Smith

In many ways, Smith's stark description of the innate hostility of prejudice was autobiographical. Born near the end of the 19th century, the eighth of ten children in a wealthy, loving middle-class family, Smith initially encountered little public intolerance. Indeed, as a young girl, she studied music, attended the local symphony and theater, read voraciously, and generally experienced the comfort associated with a white, privileged female childhood.

Yet as Anne Loveland recounts, Smith's childhood was also filled with contradictions and rejections. She was born Lillian Eugenia Smith on December 12, 1897, in Jasper, Florida, a small community near the Georgia border, the daughter of Annie Hester Smith and Calvin Warren Smith. Lillian's father, a successful merchant and civic leader, was active in town politics and served as a steward in the Methodist Church across the street from the Smith household. Yet family discussions of God centered on damnation as much as redemption; and Smith struggled to reconcile loving Aunt Chloe, the black woman who worked for her family, with what she later labeled in an essay on her childhood entitled "Growing Into Freedom," as "the bleak rituals of keeping the Negro in his place."

Gradually, the young Smith understood that sex was a key rationale for this racial division. Recalling her parents' emphasis on segregation in Killers of the Dream, Smith wrote that they saw the policy as the "only logical expression of the lessons on sex and white superiority and God. Not only Negroes but everything dark, dangerous, evil must be pushed to the rim of one's life. Signs put over doors in the world out-side and over minds seemed natural enough to children like us, for signs had already been put over forbidden areas of our body."

Family crises added to this anxiety. In 1911, Smith's brother Dewitt died from typhoid and four years later her father lost his business; the family was forced to make their summer home in rural Clayton, Georgia, their primary residence. Smith had just completed high school when the family moved, and she did not find the transition from a small Florida city to a rural Georgia town an easy one. She tried to pursue her studies by attending Piedmont College in nearby Demorest, but after one year (1915–16) was forced to return home to help her parents run the Laurel Falls Hotel they had made from their residence. She spent the next year teaching school during the day and cooking and cleaning for her family during the evenings and summer vacations.

These financial difficulties did not dissuade Smith from pursuing a music career, however, and she spent three poverty-stricken years in Baltimore studying at the Peabody Conservatory. There she often lived on coffee and chocolate bars, walked several miles to class, and supported herself by offering music lessons to the YWCA and the Police Athletic League and working as an accompanist for classes held for American Can Company and Bethlehem Steel Works employees. This experience introduced Smith to a new side of prejudice, "slums, poverty, factories—much I had known nothing about." Smith also fell in love with a man who at first kept his marriage a secret from her. Dejected, she eventually broke off the relationship and, after realizing that her interest in music exceeded her talent, she left the Conservatory and returned home in 1921.

But Smith did not stay in Georgia long. When the Virginia School in Huzhou, China, a Methodist-affiliated academy for upper-class Chinese girls, invited Smith to join its faculty as head of its music department, she eagerly accepted the offer. Here, for the first time, Smith lived in a woman-only community and observed what women could achieve when they were able to set their own agenda. Yet this experience was not an entirely pleasant one. As Jo Ann Robinson recalled, Smith's encounter with "Western imperialism and indigenous politics quickened her awareness of the destructiveness of divisions based upon race and class."

By summer 1925, Calvin Smith's health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer manage Laurel Falls, the summer camp he had converted from the hotel in 1920; Smith unhappily yielded to family pressures and left China to take over management of the camp. While she had spent a few summers employed at Laurel Falls, she had never planned to make that her life's work. She objected to her father's blatant patriotic pageants and emphasis on sporting competition, never enjoyed horseback riding and the other physical activities the camp offered, and disapproved of its "over-emotionalized atmosphere."

But once she assumed responsibility, she began to reshape the camp in her own interests. She fired most of the counselors, hired new women whose areas of expertise reflected her own concerns, and replaced many sports with artistic and dramatic programs. When her father's health allowed her a brief respite, she

spent the fall of 1927 attending Columbia University's Teachers College where she took courses in psychology, history and education. The following summer, she incorporated her new academic expertise into programs which encouraged campers to explore their own emotions and confront the psychological and social forces which influenced their lives. In 1929, Smith decided that she might as well buy the camp from her father and have the control over camp finances that she had over camp activities. Her father agreed and Smith ran Laurel Falls every summer until 1948, when she decided to close the camp and concentrate on writing.

Laurel Falls played a more important role in Smith's life than a mere financial one. It was there that Smith met Paula Snelling , a trim athletic woman Calvin Smith had hired as an equestrian counselor in 1921, and with whom Smith would develop a full lifelong partnership. When Calvin Smith died of cancer in April 1930 and Annie Hester Smith decided to spend the winter with her sons in Florida, Smith began to spend the winters with Snelling in Snelling's Macon apartment. Over the next five winters, with Snelling's encouragement, Smith began to write and to become an active member of the Macon arts community. She became such an integral part of the Macon literary scene that her peers elected her president of the Macon Writers Club in the early winter of 1935.

That summer, Snelling was almost killed in a horseback riding accident, and the Smith-Snelling relationship took a new turn. As Snelling recuperated from her trampling, she moved into Smith's cabin on Old Steamer Mountain, and Smith assumed financial responsibility for herself, Snelling, and Smith's invalid mother. That Christmas, tragedy struck again when they learned that a 19-year-old woman who had been one of their favorite campers had committed suicide. Grappling with depression and winters of isolation, and missing the intellectual stimulation of Macon, Smith and Snelling decided to begin a literary magazine dedicated to publishing Southern writers and essayists. Smith assumed responsibility for fiction while Snelling edited essays and book reviews.

In 1936, Pseudopodia (renamed North Georgia Review in 1937 and The South Today in 1942) appeared. It was the first Southern publication owned by whites which published writings by Southern blacks. Noted for its unflinching assault on racial prejudice, segregation, and racial violence, the magazine soon expanded and began to allow women writers more space to address issues associated with gender and class discrimination. The magazine grew in influence and reached a circulation high of 10,000 before Smith ceased its publication in 1945 in order to concentrate on her own writing.

Smith did not confine her commitment to attacking segregation to the pages of her journal. She began to study psychology, history, religion, and anthropology intensively as part of a lifelong quest to understand the causes and consequences of prejudice. And she began to open her home to the writers whose articles she published, the artists and thinkers she admired, and writers whose works she studied. This led to the first social biracial gatherings in Clayton. The Rosenwald Fund recognized the two women's commitment and awarded them two-year fellowships which they used to travel the South and investigate the social and economic consequences of segregation. Smith's travels increased her visibility, and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) asked her to join its board. She agreed and served until 1944, when she resigned because she believed the SCHW was not doing enough to abolish segregation and promote integration. Throughout the 1940s, while running Laurel Falls, editing her literary journal, and speaking out against Jim Crow policies, Smith continued to work on her own writing. By 1944, she finished her most controversial novel, the aforementioned Strange Fruit, and achieved national fame.

Smith's study of psychology and her readings of Freud convinced her that prejudice was learned at an early age and that bold persistent efforts must be made to counteract the innate biases the white-dominated educational, political and religious institutions had on children and their parents. She dedicated most of her energy in the late '40s to writing Killers of the Dream, her most passionate attack on the pernicious effects of Southern racial custom. When it became apparent that she could not run Laurel Falls and meet her publisher's deadline, she opted to close the camp and devote all her time to writing. Killers, a series of essays which clearly revealed Smith's linking of gender roles with racial violence and segregated custom and which argued that a rigidly enforced fear of female and black sexuality were the underpinnings of white racism, appeared in 1949 to mixed reviews and disappointing sales.

Not content to limit her time to writing, Smith also joined the boards of the NAACP, CORE, ACLU and other national civil-rights organizations in the mid-'40s. She traveled the country speaking out against the poll tax, segregated school systems, and the misuse of Christianity to justify Jim Crow practices. At home, she attacked white moderates who counseled patience and who argued that segregation should be dismantled gradually. She campaigned against Dixiecrats and in support of "true liberals" who wanted immediate integration.

By the 1950s, financial hardship returned, her health declined, and her interest in religion took a different turn. Struggling against breast cancer (which would be detected in 1954), the "rabid" fear promoted by Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communism, and the "smothering" she believed her Southern critics imposed on her work, Smith tried to balance her personal quest for strength with her professional interest in cultural mores. She began to study the writings of Paul Tillich, Rollo May, Mohandas Gandhi, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

This quest led to Smith's third publication The Journey, a collection of autobiographical essays which Snelling later defined as "the epiphanies which were hers as she sought to find and define the meanings of life." Indeed, in a posthumous collection of Smith's speeches and essays, The Winner Names the Age, Snelling argued that The Journey is the clearest description of Smith's conviction and cited the following quote as the perfect distillation of Smith's belief:

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. … To find the point where hypothesis and fact meet; the delicate equilibrium between dream and reality; … the hour when faith in the future becomes knowledge of the past; to lay down one's power for others in need; to shake off the old ordeal and get ready for the new; to question, knowing that never can the full answer be found; to accept uncertainties quietly, even our incomplete knowledge of God: this is what man's journey is about, I think.

After recuperating from breast cancer surgery, Smith threw herself into urging the South to comply with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Two white teenagers responded by setting her home on fire, destroying in the process manuscripts, her library, and over 10,000 letters she had saved. Undaunted, as white resistance increased, Smith decided to write another plea for racial tolerance, Now Is the Time (1955).

When the black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, began to boycott the segregated city bus system in December 1955, following the arrest of Rosa Parks , Smith, a long-time student of Mohandas Gandhi, was ecstatic and, despite a recurrence of cancer, raised money and spoke out whenever possible on the virtue of their actions. Escalating white violence had convinced her that while litigation was important, nonviolent resistance was crucial to successful implementation of integration. Thrilled by the leadership exhibited by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil-rights leaders, Smith urged whites and blacks to join forces in nonviolent protest against racial prejudice. Her support of King developed into friendship. Indeed, when King was arrested for driving with an expired license in the summer of 1960, he had attracted the attention of a police officer because a white woman was sitting next to him as he drove through a white Atlanta suburb. Smith was that woman, and King was driving her from his house to Emory Hospital where she was to have another cancer operation the following morning.

Smith, delighted by the actions of black students who peacefully demanded service in the Greensboro (N.C.) Woolworth's, also eagerly supported student sit-ins. This led the Student-Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to invite Smith to address its 1960 regional conference and to look to her for moral, political, and financial support. However, as the civil-rights movement became more diverse in its strategy and as some SNCC members began to argue against nonviolent resistance, Smith became troubled by the division and began to investigate the split within the movement. Our Faces, Our Words (1964) chronicled the frustrations and aspirations of these new leaders.

By 1965, her 16-year struggle with cancer kept Smith at home and her activism was limited to writing speeches to be delivered by colleagues and to publishing occasional articles urging the end of Jim Crow, cautioning civil-rights activists against allying the movement to the developing anti-Vietnam movement, and pleading for the recognition that prejudice and stereotyping harmed the bigot as much as the bigot's target. Lillian Smith died on September 26, 1966, at Emory Hospital where she had been treated for yet another occurrence of cancer, now in the lungs. She was buried on Old Steamer Mountain, Georgia.


Gladney, Margaret Rose, ed. How Am I To Be Heard?: Letters of Lillian Smith. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1993.

Loveland, Anne C. Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South. Baton Rouge, LA, 1986.

Robinson, Jo Ann. "Lillian Smith: Reflections on Race and Sex," in Southern Exposure. No. 4, 1977, pp. 43–48.

Smith, Lillian. The Winner Names the Age. Edited by Michelle Cliff. Preface by Paula Snelling. New York, 1978.

Sullivan, Margaret. "Lillian Smith: The Public Image and the Personal Vision," in Mad River Review. Vol. 2. Summer 1967, pp. 3–21.

suggested reading:

Durr, Virginia. Outside the Magic Circle. Tuscaloosa, AL, 1985.

Kneebone, John T. Southern Liberal Journalists and the Issue of Race, 1920–1944. Chapel Hill, NC, 1985.

Miller, Kathleen Atkinson. "Out of the Chrysalis: Lillian Smith and the Transformation of the South," Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, 1984.

White, Helen, and Redding S. Sugg, Jr., eds. From the Mountain: An Anthology of the Magazine Successively Titled Pseudopodia, the North Georgia Review, and South Today. Memphis, TN, 1972.


Correspondence, papers and manuscripts relating to Pseudopodia, et al. located in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, University of Florida Libraries.

Correspondence, papers and memorabilia which survived the 1955 fire, or which were written after that date, located in the Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia.

Allida M. Black , Visiting Assistant Professor of History and American Studies, Penn State University, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania