Partner Paula Snelling
Piedmont College, 1021 Central Ave, Demorest, GA 30535, Stati Uniti
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, Stati Uniti
Lillian E. Smith Center, 496 Hershey Lane, Clayton, GA 30525, Stati Uniti
Lillian Eugenia Smith (December 12, 1897 – September 28, 1966) was a writer and social critic of the Southern United States, known most prominently for her best-selling novel Strange Fruit (1944). A white woman who openly embraced controversial positions on matters of race and gender equality, she was a southern liberal unafraid to criticize segregation and work toward the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, at a time when such actions virtually guaranteed social ostracism.
Smith was born on December 12, 1897, to a prominent family in Jasper, Florida, the seventh of nine children. Her life as the daughter of a middle-class civic and business leader took an abrupt turn in 1915 when her father lost his turpentine mills. The family was not without resources, however, and decided to relocate to their summer residence in the mountains of Clayton, Georgia, where her father had previously purchased property and operated the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls.
Now a young adult financially on her own, she was free to pursue her love of music and teaching for the next five years. She spent a year studying at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, (1915–16). She also had two stints at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1917 and 1919. She returned home and helped her parents manage a hotel and taught in two mountain schools before accepting a position to be director of music at a Methodist school for girls in Huzhou (now Wuxing, Zhejiang), China. She was not a churchgoer and did not consider herself religious, however this time abroad gave way for a pivotal moment in Smith's awareness of the Southern double standard. She studied Chinese philosophy during her time overseas and by living in China was exposed to the similarities between the suppression of the Chinese and African Americans in the States.
Her time in China was limited, however, by her father's declining health, so she was forced to return home to the States in 1925. Back in Georgia, she assumed the role of heading the Laurel Falls Camp, a position she would hold for the next 23 years (1925–48). Laurel Falls Camp soon became very popular under her direction as an innovative educational institution known for its instruction in the arts, music, drama, and modern psychology. Her father died in 1930, and she was left with responsibility for the family business and the care of her ill mother.
During her time at the family camp, Lillian Smith soon formed a lifelong relationship with one of the camp's school counselors, Paula Snelling, of Pinehurst, Georgia. The two remained closeted as a same-sex couple for the rest of their lives, as their correspondence has shown. In the South, gender roles were binarily distinct and Smith never addressed her sexuality openly. However, some of her literature's characters were lesbian. At that time, homosexuality was more of a taboo in Southern Society than desegregation. Lillian and Paula began publishing a small, quarterly literary magazine, Pseudopodia, in 1936. The magazine encouraged writers, black or white, to offer honest assessments of modern southern life, to challenge for social and economic reform, and it criticized those who ignored the Old South's poverty and injustices. It quickly gained regional fame as a forum for liberal thought, undergoing two name changes to reflect its expanding scope. In 1937 it became the North Georgia Review, and in 1942, the title was changed to its final form, South Today. South Today ceased publication in 1945.
In 1944, she published the bestselling novel Strange Fruit, which dealt with the then-forbidden and controversial theme of interracial romance. The title was originally Jordan is so Chilly, with Smith later changing the title to Strange Fruit. In her autobiography, singer Billie Holiday wrote that Smith chose to name the book after her song "Strange Fruit", which was about the lynching and racism against African-Americans, although Smith maintained that the book's title referred to the "damaged, twisted people (both black and white) who are the products or results of our racist culture." After the book's release, the book was banned in Boston and Detroit for "lewdness" and crude language. Strange Fruit was also banned from being mailed through the U.S. Postal Service, with the ban against the book being lifted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after his wife Eleanor Roosevelt requested it of him.
In 1949, Smith kept up her personal assault on racism with Killers of the Dream, a collection of essays that attempted to identify, challenge and dismantle the Old South's racist traditions, customs and beliefs, warning that segregation corrupted the soul. She also emphasized the negative implications on the minds of women and children. Written in a confessional and autobiographical style that was highly critical of southern moderates, it met with something of a cruel silence from book critics and the literary community.
One of the ways Smith started openly discussing the problems of segregation was during her counseling of campers at Laurel Falls. It was this period of creative control over the camp that allowed her to use it as a place to discuss modern social issues, like the dangers of inequality and how to improve their society as women. In 1955, the civil rights movement grabbed the entire nation's attention with the Montgomery bus boycott. By this time she had been meeting or corresponding with many southern blacks and liberal whites for years and was well aware of blacks' concerns. In response to Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling that outlawed segregation in schools, she wrote Now Is the Time (1955), calling for compliance with the new court decision. She called the new ruling "every child's Magna Carta".
Smith battled breast cancer from the early 1950s on and died on September 28, 1966, at the age of 68. Her book The Journey (1954) details some of this battle. She is buried near the old theater chimney, Laurel Falls camp atop Screamer Mountain, Clayton, Georgia.