Miss Lil's Camp
'Miss Lil's Camp' is an award winning documentary about the director of an exclusive summer camp for girls from upper middle class Southern homes. Miss Lil, as Lillian Smith was known, taught Laurel Falls' campers that segregation was wrong. She expressed her thoughts and radical ideas at a time when Southern leadership was committed to a racially segregated society and Jim Crow laws permeated every aspect of social life. Some young campers were repulsed by her ideas while others embraced them. In short, Lillian Smith was no ordinary woman and Laurel Falls no ordinary camp.
Radical as the camp was, nothing prepared the parents of campers, or indeed the rest of the South, for Lillian Smith's first novel, Strange Fruit (1944). The story of a white Southern man's love for a black girl, the book was banned in Boston and distributed secretly in the South. Public reaction was swift and harsh. Some campers were forbidden to return to camp; others returned despite opposition from home.
In the film, we meet three former campers and a former camp employee who return to Laurel Falls Camp. Weaving narratives of former campers and rare archival footage of Lillian Smith, the film brings Miss Lil and Laurel Falls Camp back to life.
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Lillian Smith spent her life challenging all of us to think more deeply about the morality of our everyday lives and actions. While she is most widely known for her activism in the Civil Rights movement, and as the author of a novel, "Strange Fruit", about a racially forbidden love affair, she also spent the years from 1925-1948 being the director of the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls.
Sleepy, rolling mountains and deep forests blanket the northeast corner of Georgia, where the small town of Clayton is found. Screamer Mountain lies just outside of Clayton and that is where Miss Lil's summer camp was located. Some of the stone and wood buildings on the mountain are still standing but the real legacy left by Lil is the guidance she provided to the young campers as they forged their own ideas about the world and how it should work.
This short documentary film draws on the experiences of several women who were part of the camp experience. Their descriptions create a brief impression of what is was like at the camp and how Lillian blended a message of racial equality into a summer of fun and wonder that obviously changed lives. The campers were taught music, arts, sports and theater during their stays but also guided into thinking about how people should be treated and how we should interact with each other.
It is clear, in retrospect, that Lillian not only taught but also learned from her students as she developed her own inner thoughts and writing that eventually erupted into controversy with the publishing of "Strange Fruit" in 1944. She wrote, "My writing, the bit of success I have had with it, the somewhat stormy and exhausting years that have followed the book [Strange Fruit], all these have only made me more certain that from children comes one's richest and most real experiences in life and one's final contribution to this world's welfare can be measured most truly by what one does for children everywhere."
Healing the wounds caused by the idea of racial supremacy was one of Lillian's lifelong objectives. Giving the girls at her camp the tools they needed to plot moral pathways forward, was the idea. Doing this, during these years before the civil rights movement, in the heart of the deep south, and aimed at the rich white daughters of cotton planters was audacious. In 1942, she wrote the following to Eleanor Roosevelt, "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!)"
In 1939, Billy Holliday recorded a song with the lyrics, "Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." But in this film, Lillian describes her concept of strange fruit as not pertaining to lynching, but to the price paid by southern culture for racism and the product of this price as the people grown from that tainted culture. If Miss Lil's camp for girls taught a new way of looking at life to about fifty girls each summer for over twenty years, then the product of the camp is over a thousand privileged white southern girls with new ideas. They are now much older and many with their own children and grandchildren whom hopefully have been raised with a different way of thinking. This is the fruit of Lil's dreams.
Lillian closed the camp in 1948, probably in anticipation of a negative backlash to her next book, titled, "Killers of the Dream". 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. And always I hope camp will not be full of just echoes, but that you and [your child] in the flesh will be climbing the old rock steps many a time to visit us".