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Lillian Smith (1897–1966) was a writer and social critic of the Southern United States, known best 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 almost guaranteed social ostracism.
Lillian Eugenia Smith was born on December 12, 1897 in the America before women's suffrage to a prominent family in Jasper, Florida, the eighth of ten 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 (1915–1916). 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. While she was not a churchgoer and did not consider herself religious, it follows that her youthful Christian principals were challenged by the oppression and injustice she would witness there, and that this laid the foundation of her later awareness as a social critic.
Her time in China was limited however by problems back home. Her father's health was declining and 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 twenty three years (1925–1948). Laurel Falls Camp soon became very popular as 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. It was this period of creative control over the camp, her ability to use it as a place to discuss modern social issues, combined with the pressures of caring for her ailing parents that made her turn to writing as an emotional escape.
Lillian Smith soon formed a lifelong relationship with one of the camp's school counselors, Paula Snelling, of Pinehurst, Georgia, and the two 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 finally settling with South Today.
In 1949, she 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.
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), calliarly-1950s on and died on September 28, 1966, at the age of 68. Her book The Journey (1954) details some of this battle.
Today Strange Fruit remains her most famous work, translated into fifteen languages, but many of her works, like Killers of the Dream, are being rediscovered and given their due as groundbreaking in both style and substance. She no doubt deserves recognition as one of the first prominent Southern whites to write about and speak out openly against racism and segregation. Her lifelong convictions are summed up in her acceptance speech for the Charles S. Johnson Award at Fisk University in 1966: “Segregation is evil; there is no pattern of life which can dehumanize men as can the way of segregation.”