Shaped by her early years in Georgia, Helen M. Lewis made her mark after leaving the state for other parts of the South, most notably in the Appalachian Mountains. In her dual role as academic and social activist, Lewis helped found the discipline of Appalachian Studies and served for several decades as one of its most influential leaders.
Helen Matthews was born in 1924 to Maurie Harris Matthews, a dental assistant, and Hugh Presley Matthews, a rural mail carrier, in Nicholson, which is located in Jackson County, a few miles north of Athens. In 1934 the family moved to Cumming, in Forsyth County, where in 1912 whites had driven out nearly all the county’s Black residents. Her father, sensitive to the virulent racism in the area, actively warned African Americans about the risks in settling there, all the while raising his eldest daughter’s awareness of racial injustice and fueling the early activism of her college years.
Matthews attended Bessie Tift College, a small women’s Baptist school in Forsyth. As a freshman there, she was moved by a sermon delivered by visiting preacher Clarence Jordan, who in 1942 founded Koinonia in Sumter County, one of the nation’s first Christian interracial communes. He preached on the Good Samaritan, who is depicted as a Black man in Jordan’s New Testament translation, Cotton Patch Gospel. That moment, she later recalled, brought her life’s purpose into focus. She intended to fight racial and economic injustice.
In 1943 she transferred to Georgia State College for Women (later Georgia College and State University) in Milledgeville, where she worked on the school yearbook with classmate Flannery O’Connor and participated in interracial activities sponsored by the campus YWCA. Upon graduating in 1946, she moved to Atlanta and became involved in the “Children’s Crusade,” the nickname for a statewide effort to register young voters across the state, sponsored by the Student League for Good Government. (Georgia was the first state to grant the vote to eighteen-year-olds.) After a brief stint in graduate school at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she met and married Judd Lewis, she returned to Atlanta and worked as a speechwriter for Georgia governor Melvin E. Thompson.
In 1948 she had her first run-in with the law when she and others involved in a meeting of YWCA members and divinity school students from around the South were arrested for disorderly conduct based on the presence of three African American attendees. Much was made of the incident in the Atlanta newspapers, which falsely reported that the gathering was an interracial dance. Lewis and others who attended the meeting were eventually charged with the lesser charge of disturbing the peace. She paid a $25 fine.
Appalachian Activist and Scholar
After her year in Atlanta, Lewis and her husband moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they both attended graduate school at the University of Virginia. Lewis earned her master’s degree in sociology in 1949, with a thesis entitled “The Woman Movement and the Negro Movement: Parallel Struggles for Rights.”
After working for several years as a social worker in Richmond, Virginia, Lewis moved with her husband in 1955 to Wise, in the heart of southwest Virginia’s coal country, where she became a librarian and lecturer at Clinch Valley College. There she discovered Appalachia, the mountainous region that was home to some of the most impoverished and isolated communities in the nation. Drawn to the region’s people and traditions, Lewis came to despise the human exploitation and environmental devastation caused by the coal and chemical industries. She considered their activities modern-day versions of colonialism and blamed them for many of the problems faced by southern highlanders.
During the 1960s Lewis researched coal mining mechanization and its impact on families in the region as part of her doctoral studies at the University of Kentucky, where in 1970 she earned her Ph.D. in sociology. She rejoined the faculty at Clinch Valley in 1969, teaching sociology and anthropology, and breaking new academic ground by creating curricula in both rural sociology and Appalachian Studies. She and her husband divorced in 1974, and in 1977 she joined the staff of the Highlander Research and Education Center (formerly known as the Highlander Folk School) in New Market, Tennessee. Over the next twenty years there, her commitment to the region both deepened and broadened, as reflected in her scholarship and her activism.
During her time at Highlander (and in visiting stints at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky; Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa Falls, Georgia; and Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, among others), Lewis embraced a variety of issues affecting Appalachian communities, including social and environmental justice, rural community development, the empowerment of women, improved access to health care, opposition to strip mining, and comparative cultural study of coal workers in Appalachia and in Wales, United Kingdom. For several years, she worked closely with the residents of Ivanhoe, Virginia, which resulted in a two-volume oral history project published in 1990. Among her many other published works are two coauthored books, Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case (1978) and Mountain Sisters: From Convent to Community in Appalachia (2003), a history chronicling an order of nuns in Kentucky.
Upon her retirement from Highlander in 1997, Lewis moved back to her home state and spent the next fifteen years in Morganton, in Fannin County, though she continued to be much in demand as a teacher and lecturer throughout the region. In 2002 she served as president of the Appalachian Studies Association and presided over its annual meeting at Unicoi State Park in Helen. She currently lives in Abingdon, Virginia.
In 2012 longtime colleagues Judith Jennings and Patricia Beaver published a biographical compilation of interviews, essays, and oral histories by and about Lewis entitled Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia. In 2016 the acclaimed Atlanta actress Brenda Bynum wrote and performed What Am I Supposed To Do Now?, a one-woman play based on Lewis’s life and career, with productions at the Craddock Center in Gilmer County and in Abingdon.
Lewis’s papers are held in the special collections at Appalachian State University.