Lillian Eugenia Smith

The Southern writer Lillian Eugenia Smith (1897-1966) was recognized as a passionate critic of white supremacy and segregation. Her main concern was that the traditional pattern of race relations, which she knew intimately from her own experience growing up in Florida and Georgia, was harmful to the humanity of both whites and African Americans.

Born December 12, 1897, in the small, racially-divided north Florida town of Jasper, Lillian Smith was the seventh of nine children. Her father, Calvin Warren Smith, was a successful local businessman and civic leader, while her mother, Anne Hester Simpson, was a descendant of wealthy rice planters. Her parents introduced her to music and literature, but she also was exposed to the accepted views of white supremacy. She later rebelled against the prejudices of her culture, era, and region, and as a writer became recognized as one of the most outspoken opponents of segregation in the South.

Smith graduated from high school in 1915 and spent several years studying, running a hotel her father operated, joining the Student Nursing Corps, and teaching at a rural high school in Georgia. In 1919 she resumed her piano studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Beginning in 1922, Smith spent three crucial years as the music director of an American Methodist school for Chinese girls in Huchow, China. The experience introduced her to Chinese philosophy and the impact of Western imperialism. It also revealed a new perspective on social relations in the South.

Smith, who never married, returned in 1925 to take care of her ailing parents and to help run the Lauren Falls Camp for Girls in Clayton, Georgia. Purchased as a summer home in 1912, the family had moved there permanently in 1915 when the father's business had failed. Under her direction, the camp, which she operated until 1949, became nationally acclaimed for its creative and educational approach.

When the camp was not in session she returned to writing. After producing several manuscripts about her family and her experience in China that went unpublished, in 1935 she and her friend Paula Snelling launched a magazine devoted to Southern politics and culture. It first appeared in the spring of 1936 as Pseudopedia (later renamed The North Georgia Review and then The South Today) with 200 subscribers, and reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time it ceased publication in 1945.

The magazine, which printed the work of African Americans and women, was also a forum for Smith, who criticized racism by appealing to the self-interest of middle-and upper-class whites. She had spent winters in 1927 and 1928 studying psychology at Columbia Teachers College, and her interest in Freud and such other writers as Karl Menninger was evident in her writing. She was interested primarily in the psychological harm of segregation on whites.

Her ideas found wider expression in the controversial and best-selling novel Strange Fruit, published in 1944, which was a story about an ill-fated love affair between a young white man from a respected family and a college-educated African American woman working as a housekeeper. It was set in a small town based on her native Jasper. Banned in Boston as obscene, it eventually sold over three million copies and was translated into 16 languages.

The success of the novel gave her financial independence and established her reputation as a critic of segregation. She lectured, wrote for national magazines, and contributed a column for the Black newspaper The Defender (Chicago).

Her second major book, Killers of the Dream (1949), was nonfiction, blending autobiography and psychology to analyze her upbringing and the pathology of a Southern culture based on white supremacy and segregation. In her view the sickness of the Southern way of life transcended race relations and symbolized the human experience.

Shortly after being treated for breast cancer for the first time, she wrote The Journey (1954), which was based on her travels and interviews in the South and investigated the idea of human dignity. The book focused on suffering and pain in the lives of many individuals in the South and expressed her discovery of a religious outlook that replaced the early evangelical Christianity she had rejected in her youth.

After the 1954 historic Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (which outlawed segregation in schools), Smith wrote Now Is the Time (1955), which urged the South to accept the decision. She published another novel, One Hour (1959), which focused on the hysteria of the McCarthy era.

In the changing climate of the early 1960s, Smith gained a wider audience, publishing a revised version of Killers of the Dream as well as writing for such mass circulation magazines as Life, McCalls, and Redbook, and such major newspapers as the New York Times and Atlanta Constitution. Her final book was a pictorial essay on the civil rights efforts, Our Faces, Our Words (1964).

Throughout her career Smith was one of the most out-spoken white Southerners on race issues, and she criticized the timidity of moderates and liberals. She had always preferred appeals to white self-interest and personal change, but beginning in the mid-1950s she supported the nonviolent civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although she had been an early member of such African American organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), by the mid-1960s she became critical of the increasingly militant tone of some African American groups.

As a writer Smith never felt appreciated as a creative artist. She was bitter that critics judged her work in terms of social problems rather than viewing it as a metaphor for the alienation of the human condition. Yet from the mid-1930s until her death on September 28, 1966, she was a respected, uncompromising, and influential advocate of desegregation in the South.

Further Reading on Lillian Eugenia Smith

Smith's major writing includes the novel Strange Fruit (1944) and the nonfiction works Killers of the Dream (1949) and The Journey (1954). An anthology of her writing from her magazine The South Today can be found in From the Mountain, Helen White and Redding Sugg, Jr., eds. (1972). Another collection of her writing is The Winner Names the Age, edited by Michelle Cliff (1978). A good biography of Smith is Lillian Smith A Southerner Confronting the South by Anne C. Loveland (1986). How Am I To Be Heard: Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney, was published in 1993.

Additional Biography Sources

Smith, Lillian Eugenia, Memory of a large Christmas, Athens:University of Georgia Press, 1996.