Lillian Smith (1897-1966)

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.

In 1944, her novel, Strange Fruit, scandalized the nation and especially the South with the love story between a World War One veteran and a black woman. The book sold millions of copies worldwide but was banned in Boston and Detroit. The postmaster in Atlanta refused to send the book through the mail because he termed it “pornography.” Readers in Clayton carried it in plain brown bags to avoid detection. 

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 and her brother Frank standing in front of the bookmobile. Lillian and her brother Frank standing in front of the bookmobile.
Smith’s extended family became prominent members of the Rabun community, particularly her brother Frank. Frank A. Smith was elected Rabun’s CEO in 1937 and was described as “one of the most progressive...administrations of our public affairs that we have ever had,” by Andrew Ritchie. When Lillian’s novel, Strange Fruit, was dramatized for Broadway, her brother Frank and other locals were instrumental in providing financial support for the play.

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.”

Help us plan for
Rabun County’s Bicentennial Celebration

Special Exhibit:
Rabun’s Twentieth Century in Review

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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