Note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of “A View from the Mountain,” the Lillian E. Smith Center’s newsletter.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Laurel Falls Camp. Lillian Smith’s father, Calvin, opened the camp in 1920, and it was the first private camp for girls in the state of Georgia. “Miss Lil,” as the campers called her, took over as the director of the camp in 1925 when she returned from China due to her parents’ ill health, and she ran the camp till it closed in 1948. As director of Laurel Falls Camp, Smith shaped the lives of countless women, both in the moment and in the future. The girls that went to the camp went on to grow into adulthood, relaying what they learned from “Miss Lil” to their own families. This generational legacy points to the importance of Laurel Falls Camp in the shaping of countless lives.
Initially, Smith did not want to take over the camp, but as the years went on, she came to see her role as camp director as a way to educate the campers and enact social change. Writing to counselors before the camp opened in 1932, Smith told them that the camp was much more than sports and activities: “Camp — a good camp — has progressed far from the old idea of a summer camp of sports. Unless we produce behavior changes in our children, we have done nothing; unless we take the most scrupulous care of our children’s health and safety, we are failing the trust which parents have in us.”
For “Miss Lil,” the “behavior changes” involved much more than whether or not the campers obeyed their parents, got good grades, or adhered to the social standards of the time. The changes involved questioning the myths that supported the social standards, the myths that told them they were superior to others. She wrote to William Haygood, the director of the Division of Fellowships, Julius Rosenwald Fund, in 1941, about the impact that she hoped the camp would have on both those who attended it and future generations. She told Haygood, “I sometimes think perhaps our work with girls who will some day be the women leaders of the South may be of some definite value. We have this year, as usual, worked on many genuinely interesting projects with them in racial relationships, and there is always up here much discussion of the South and its problems.”
The girls at the camp would partake in the typical camp activities such as horseback riding, tennis, swimming, and other outdoor activities. They would also talk about various topics ranging from poetry, music, and literature to psychology, sex, and race. Smith encouraged the campers to discuss everything, and they did. In this process, she learned, as she wrote to an English teacher in 1959, “more from the campers” than from psychologists and child specialists “because I tried not to put barriers between me and them and we talked about everything: our bodies, sex, death, life, God, our parents, hate, love, fear, anxiety, guilt, and beauty.”
These discussions worked, as Smith noted again and again, to help campers build bridges to others. Writing to counselors before the start of camp in 1946, she stressed to them the importance of helping campers grow physically, psychosexually, socially, intellectually, and creatively. She pointed out that discussions of religion, race, and segregation cause friction between individuals, but they are important and work towards social growth, “a growth outward to other people” that leads to accepting others and “identifying ourselves with their needs.”
In “Children Talking,” a piece she wrote for the October 1945 issue of Progressive Education, Smith shows the process and results of the pedagogy she deployed at Laurel Falls Camp. The essay is a conversation between “Miss Lil” and the campers. They talk about sex, religion, race, and the world. They talk about the bombs that murdered countless individuals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One camper asked, “If we had been in Hiroshima at a summer camp with other children that bomb would’ve fallen on us?” Smith simply replied, “Yes.” Another camper pointed out that the children, just like those at the camp, had nothing to do with the war and that the actions didn’t “seem quite fair.” “Miss Lil” sat with the children talking about how to build bridges across the world to people in Hiroshima, and she eventually told them, “Sometimes geography — and distance — make it easier not to care.”
The distance between individuals could be across oceans or only a few miles away. After the murders of George and Mae Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcom in Monroe, GA, in 1946, “Miss Lil” and the campers discussed the lynching. Smith wrote to the campers’ parents about those conversations and how the campers asked if the couples had children and “how those children are feeling, and who are looking after them.” They asked if the children would “grow up to be good citizens” and how they felt about America. These were tough questions to answer, and Smith worked to answer them both at the camp and in her writing.
After twenty-eight years, Laurel Falls Camp closed. Smith’s writing, and perhaps her fears about the reaction of parents to the forthcoming publication of Killers of the Dream, led her to cease operations of the camp. The decision, as she noted, did not come easily, and she reiterated the importance of what campers learned and the impact those lessons would have on future generations. She wrote, “I hope that the idea of Laurel Falls will not die. I want to believe that we have started a chain reaction of dreams that will go on touching child after child in our South.”
Laurel Falls Camp has not died. Even though the camp closed in 1948, its memory remains. The impact of what “Miss Lil” and others accomplished on Old Screamer Mountain echoes through the years. Someone told me recently that on two separate occasions while reading the newspaper in the airport that she read the obituaries of two women who pointed to the impact that Laurel Falls Camp had on their lives. I’ve talked with former campers who have said the same thing. I spoke with one former camper who, even though she only went for four weeks in 1943 and went to another camp after her mother read Strange Fruit and told her never to speak “Miss Lil’s” name in the house again, told me about the impact that “Miss Lil” and the camp had on her even in that short period.
Please join us in celebrating the 100th anniversary of Laurel Falls Camp. We would love to hear your stories, memories, and the impact of the camp on your life or on those you know. You can email them to us at LESCenter@piedmont.edu or connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook using #laurelfalls100.
Note: Photos courtesy of Susan Hamersky. Can be found on the LES Center’s website.