A Letter from Lillian Smith

A Letter from Lillian Smith

Edited by Rose Gladney

Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 32-33

As writer, intellectual, and social critic of 20th century Southern and American life, Lillian Smith corresponded with a variety of notables about subjects of major historical, political, and cultural interest. The following selection from her correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt (copied from the original in the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York) provides a glimpse of the extent, variety, and timeliness of the interests and concerns that underlay Smith’s goals and achievements as a writer. It is from the first volume of Selected Letters of Lillian Smith, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press.

Prior to the publication of her best-selling novel Strange Fruit (1944), Smith supported herself by directing Laurel Falls Camp for Girls near Clayton, Georgia. However, her public writing career began in 1936 when she and her assistant camp director Paula Snelling decided to co-edit a magazine, first called Pseudopodia, then North Georgia Review, and finally South Today. Designed to encourage fresh critical views of Southern literature and culture, it quickly became the region’s most liberal literary voice, publishing and reviewing the works of blacks and whites, males and females, and calling for an immediate end to all forms of racial segregation.

In 1937 the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which had since 1928 focused primarily on developing black education, established a fellowship program open to Southern whites as well as to blacks in order to broaden its efforts to improve race relations. Because of the related interests and focus of their magazine, Smith and Snelling applied for and received joint Rosenwald Fellowships in 1939 and 1940, enabling them to travel widely throughout the South studying economic, political and cultural conditions.

In 1942, ’43, and ’44, they were again employed by the Rosenwald Fund to travel throughout the South in search of potential fellowship recipients among the region’s college students. Eleanor Roosevelt was also involved with the Rosenwald Fund; indeed, her response to this particular letter indicated that she would be unable to meet Smith because she would be “in Hampton attending a Rosenwald meeting.”

As the following account indicates, Smith’s impressions of Southern college students and her assessment of major issues facing the region in 1942 sound eerily familiar some forty-five years later. Likewise, as in Smith’s correspondence as a whole, this letter reveals the mind and spirit of a woman keenly observant of the world around her, especially conscious of the importance of all aspects of human relationships, and clearly aware of her role in shaping and interpreting the age in which she lived.

April 7, 1942

Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt,

The White House,

Washington, D.C.

My dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

Paula Snelling and I have this past week completed a trip through the South during which we have interviewed for the Rosenwald Fund the young Negro and White college seniors who have applied for Rosenwald scholarship-aid grants.

We have found these interviews profoundly stirring and want in some way, to share our findings with you. Some of our talks with the young Negroes were very disturbing, some most heartening, nearly all sincere and realistic. We found in the young whites–though there were exceptions–a shocking ignorance of their South, a concern primarily with their personal affairs, a restlessness about the future,

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little awareness of the international picture and our place in it. We found few educated whites who had ever met an educated Negro; few young Negroes who had met a racially unprejudiced white. We interviewed only the “cream” of the senior classes in 22 colleges.

Throughout the South, as we expected, we found many liberals giving up their liberalism “for the duration.” Especially did this seem to be true of those who are labeled “friends of the Negro.” The Negroes feel this too and are depressed and disheartened by the knowledge that many of their white friends disappear when crises arise.

Down in the Delta we found reaction rising like a great wave. Cotton is 26 cents in the Delta now and the general attitude among the planters is that neither Mr. Roosevelt nor God Himself is going to keep them from making some money while the making is good. There is a childish desperation in their attitude that would be awfully funny were they not so powerful. (Among my various activities is that of being a director of a summer camp for little rich girls. Some of these planters send their children to me in spite of my “liberalism.” But this spring I find them on the defensive, very antagonistic to all liberal movements, growing suspicious of what I am teaching their children in my camp; so suspicious and antagonistic that I dared not tell them that I was on Rosenwald Fund business for their hospitality would not have been equal to such a strain being put upon it!)

There is something heartbreakingly valiant about the young of the Negro race, so eager to prove to white America their willingness to die for a country which has given them only the scraps from the white folks’ democracy. There is resentment also; a quiet, strong resentment, running like a deep stream through their minds and hearts; something I think few white Americans are aware of, or want to face.

I shall be in Washington Friday, April 10th, at the Hay Adams House. I shall call Miss Thompson Friday morning and shall be honored to talk with you if you wish me to do so. I know you are a very busy person and I do not want to burden you further by a talk with me unless you think it will be useful to you to have in more detail this recent skimming of southern opinion.

Should you let me talk with you I would like to discuss with you also the possibilities for making this new venture of the Rosenwald Fund a more creative and vital youth project. Some of us think–and Dr. Embree shares this opinion–that the project should be more than a mere selection of young whites and blacks for graduate study. Could they feel themselves a part of some big and creative effort, something that had to do directly with their South, that had adventure in it, it would become a significant experience for them, rather than merely one more year of university study. They need somehow to be brought together, to have actual experience with each other, though heaven only knows how we can work it out in a South where such an idea can be mentioned now only in whispers. But how can the South ever work out its bi-racial problems when its intelligent and educated young whites and Negroes have never met an educated member of the other race?

I believe Miss Lucy Mason recently wrote you about Paula Snelling and me and our magazine The North Georgia Review which has now changed its name to South Today. I merely mention this kindness to us so that it will help you identify us.

There are many of us who are deeply grateful to you for your unwavering stand for the democratic decencies.

Most sincerely yours,

Lillian E. Smith

Rose Gladney is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.