It’s a fairly certain bet that in mid-twentieth century Rabun County the only person to exchange Christmas cards with Eleanor Roosevelt and to keep Martin Luther King, Jr.’s number beside her phone was Lillian Smith. What did her Rabun neighbors think of the first white woman in the South to call for an end to segregation? Was Smith seen as the nice lady who ran a summer camp for rich girls or as the celebrity author of a scandalous best-seller about interracial romance?
Born in Jasper, Florida in 1897, Lillian and her parents and siblings moved to Rabun County when she was fifteen. Her parents, and later in 1925 Lillian alone, operated Laurel Falls Camp, a summer camp for well-to-do young girls. Her writing career began with a small literary magazine she co-edited as an outlet for liberal writers, and she herself often contributed articles on race relations.
Lillian Smith’s social activism extended to the operation of her summer camp. Miss Smith’s intent at Laurel Falls, as she wrote to a camper’s mother, “to wake up the little sleeping beauties that our Anglo-American culture has anesthetized or rather put in a deep freeze.” She helped the daughters of upper-class Southerners begin to question their world and to envision change.
Lillian Smith received the Georgia Women of Achievement Award in 1999. At the induction ceremony, she was described as “controversial … but she steadfastly maintained the strength of her beliefs and … to write and speak openly against racism and segregation.” Smith’s 1956 letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. was also quoted. “My warmest greetings to you and your congregation,” she wrote, “and to your people, who are my people too; for we are all one big human family. I pray that we shall soon in the South begin to act like one.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, Rabun County remained largely isolated from the outside world. This would change dramatically with the coming of a railroad which also brought tourism, logging and dam building.
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