Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Lillian Smith nurtures anti-racist education and social justice at Laurel Falls summer camp for girls

In the history of adult education in the 20th century, particularly as it relates to social movements, we can see the power of people experiencing “the world as it could be.” Septima Clark (1990) and Myles Horton (1998) discuss the impact that Highlander had on Rosa Parks as the first place where she realized that black and white people could live collaboratively and collectively. Gandhi’s ashram and Jane Addams’ Hull House are other examples of the powerful learning that can come from intentional communities that offer another vision of social reality. Lillian Smith’s Laurel Falls Camp is a lesser-known example of this form of experiential education.

      Lillian Smith is best known as a progressive writer of the American South. Smith was born in Jasper, Florida in 1897 and lived in Mississippi, Baltimore, and China before finally settling in Georgia. In 1944 she published her most famous novel, Strange Fruit, which was quickly banned by many sellers for its narrative of an interracial romance, but nevertheless became a best seller. A prolific writer, Smith published several books (1949, 1959, 1964, 1965, 1978) as well as numerous articles. She also co-founded and edited a small literary magazine called Pseudopodia, which changed names over time to North Georgia Review and finally South Today. The magazine accepted submissions from black and white writers and encouraged reflections on contemporary southern life and the problems facing the south. Today, Smith’s literary legacy is honored by the Lillian Smith Book Award presented by the Southern Regional Council annually to recognize the best literary contributions to racial justice.

      What is lesser known about Lillian Smith is her work as an educator, particularly with the daughters of elite southern families. When Smith’s family fell on hard fiscal times, her father relocated them to Screamer Mountain in Clayton, Georgia where he owned a hotel, which he quickly converted to a summer camp. In the early 1920s, Smith returned from teaching in China to assist her parents with the operation of the camp. Within a few years she assumed the direction of the camp and eventually purchased the property from her family upon the death of her parents. Smith did not frequently write explicitly about the camp in her non-fiction texts, save for a few passages in Killers of the Dream (1994) where she discusses the work of the children and the difficulties they encounter within the competing values of southern society. But it is here that we see the deep importance of her educational work. At Laurel Falls, “Smith was able to create on her mountain, at least periodically, another aspect of the South she wanted to live in: a place where intellectuals and artists could gather to exchange ideas, to examine their society, and perhaps to find ways to influence the development and direction of its future” (Gladney, 1993 p. 13).

      It is reported that Laurel Falls was considered one of the premier summer educational institutions for young girls, boasted a 1-to-3 counselor-student ration, and brought highly acclaimed artists to the camp to work with youth (O’Dell, 2001). The camp emphasized curriculum in the arts and physical activity as well as daily discussions with Smith about a variety of issues. The camp was so popular that the publication of the reviled Strange Fruit (1944) did not impact enrollment in the least (Loveland, 1986). In fact, the camp maintained a waiting list in the summer after publication and was financed through the profits of Strange Fruit’s sales in the north.

      Smith endeavored to make the camp into a space where young women could experience an intellectual and artistic life devoted to issues of social justice and individual growth (Gladney, 1993). Smith, while not a radical such as her southern cohort Myles Horton, was a strong progressive with a virulent disdain for segregation and white supremacy. She strongly critiqued other so-called southern liberals for simply “scratching at the topsoil” (Sosna, 1977 p. 179) of segregation. At Laurel Falls

these upper-class female campers were taught through discussion, practice, and education the advantages of building bridges to the future, structures that Smith hoped would heal the divisions white supremacy created. For Smith, human progress depended on the ability of human beings to bridge the chasms between the past and the future, to both revive and recall memory where necessary and to examine how collective memory drove fissures through both collective and individual minds of the south” (O’Dell, 2001 p. 94).

It is evident in her written texts that Smith found segregation to be a fundamental distortion of the human condition. Discussions of racism, white supremacy, and southern culture seem to take priority at Laurel Falls. In a passage of Killers of the Dream (1994), Smith discusses how she spent many summers helping young women to understand the distortions around them. While the south may have been the closest topic of conversation, Smith’s notes reveal that the young women engaged in discussion about issues of inequality on a global scale as well, particularly during the period of the second world war. We can see the depth of analysis generated at Laurel Falls in one camper’s acute and astute comment: “do you think we would have dropped it [the atomic bomb] on white people” (Gladney, 1979 as cited by O’Dell, 2001).

      In addition to engaging young women in learning around anti-segregation, human rights, and white supremacy, Laurel Falls also embraced a vision of women that has been described by some as a private form of feminism (Loveland, 1986). Smith emphasized autonomy, self-determination, and a rejection of the “southern womanhood.” It seems apparent that Smith embraced an alternative vision of Southern womanhood, which she worked to develop at Laurel Falls. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt she said,

I have been trying for six or seven years to prove to white southern women of my social class that we can speak out plainly about racial democracy, that we can take a public stand against discrimination and even against segregation without losing too much prestige and without suffering martyrdom. It seems very important to me for a southern woman to demonstrate this successfully” (Gladney, 1993 p. 63)

Smith saw her work with children on racial justice to be fundamentally tied to her work with feminism (Smith, 1994). Smith employed a particularly advanced and acute analysis of the ties between white supremacy and the subjugation of women. For Smith, the end of racial hierarchies was also linked to the elimination of gender hierarchies and particularly the liberation of female sexuality, which she saw as intimately tied to the justification for the brutal forms of racism practiced in the south.

      It is also apparent that the arts were a core component of Smith’s pedagogical approach to human rights education. Sosna (1977) argued that Smith believed that artists “needed social commitment, and the purpose of art was to explicate, as creatively and brilliantly as possible, the greatest problems that confronted human beings” (p. 181). Killers of the Dream (1994) details the process of the campers in writing and staging their own production about the impositions of southern values on the growth of children and their sense of humanity. In her collected letters, Smith (Gladney, 1993) describes other experiences of the children using the dramatic arts, singing, dancing, and creative writing to explore the issues of their world. Smith says,

They wrote that play, not I. I only put it down on paper. It came out of evenings when together we did not discuss war and peace, regimentation and death, but acted it out in singing and dance and impromptu chanting. Gathered together as we have done before in the library we spent several evenings doing this…first playing on the drums then beginning to talk about today, this year, what it meant to us, - election year- child refugees- Finland- propaganda- regimentation- then suddenly one would get up and chant their feelings or dance them out…And then one night, some girl spoke of conscription, of regimented youth camps, and to my astonishment their feelings of fear and panic poured out. Then I wrote the play (p. 46-47).

There is some evidence that the plays written and produced at Laurel Falls Camp extended beyond the reach of the mountain. In 1940 a production of Drums, a play written by the campers about African-American history as part of project on racial understanding, was staged at Atlanta University (Gladney, 1993).

      We know very little about the lives of campers after Smith closed Laurel Falls in 1948. While there was general speculation that Smith chose to close Laurel Falls in order to focus on her writing career, Loveland (1986) noted in her biography of Smith that she actually closed the camp in fear of the reaction to the soon to be published Killers of the Dream (1949). Killers of the Dream was in fact her most acute assault on the social structures of the south. Niedland and Pasha (2004) have produced a documentary that finds some campers fifty years after the closing of the camp. It appears as though some campers went on to participate in the civil rights movement, the union movement, and other struggles for social justice. While we cannot be sure of the impact on the camp as children grew into adults, we know from Smith’s (Gladney, 1993) recollections that the camp was loved dearly by campers, many of whom expressed to her the impact their summer experiences had on their lives. If the sheer force of will Smith demonstrated in her writings translated to her work with youth, which we have every reason to believe, than we have some evidence that Laurel Falls Camp was an important and impactful period in the history of critical education in the American South.


Prepared by Sara Carpenter, OISE/University of Toronto, 2006

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