Helen Matthews Lewis

Helen Matthews Lewis, 1966

Helen Matthews Lewis is the most famous woman from Jackson County you’ve never heard of.

Before “justice” activism was popular, Lewis was a leading activist in a number of causes.

She fought for racial, gender and economic equality at a time when all of those things were unpopular in much of the South.

Later, she turned her attention to Appalachian social and economic issues and became one of the founders of what we now recognize as Appalachian Studies.

Lewis achieved greatness on the national stage, but the seeds of her life-long activism were planted here in Jackson County during a childhood incident that left her shaken and confused.

•••

Helen Lewis was born in 1924 outside of Nicholson in southern Jackson County. The family moved into the small town of Nicholson when she was one or two years old.

Her father was a farmer, but also became a local letter carrier for the post office. That gave the family some degree of economic security during the Depression, she later said.

In several interviews, Lewis recalled a story from her childhood that had a profound effect on her life.

Her father took her on his mail route one day and said he wanted to introduce her to someone at one of his stops, the “most educated man in Jackson County.”

The man her father admired was a local black schoolteacher and preacher who had had a talent for calligraphy. Her father had him write young Helen’s name on a card in script. She said she’d kept the card for many years.

Sometime after that, when Helen was seven or eight years old, the black schoolteacher came to the Matthews’ house in Nicholson to see Helen’s father. He knocked on the back door (black people didn’t go to the front door of white houses in that era.)

Helen’s mother and some other women were in the front room, so Helen went to see who was at the door.

In an interview, Helen recalled what happened next.

“I ran to her (the mother) and said, ‘ Mr. Rakestraw is at the door’ and the women laughed because you weren’t supposed to call a black man ‘Mister.’ And I was so shamed by that. You know, as a child to be laughed at is a terrible thing.”

That incident stayed with Helen and was the first time she had a sense of racial injustice in the South.

When she was around 10 years old, the family moved from Nicholson to Cumming in Forsyth County. That county had earlier racial conflicts and all the black families had been forcibly removed from Forsyth County in the 1920s.

There, Helen was confronted with a new level of racism and racial hatred.

“I’d never seen the signs of hostility that I saw when we moved to Cumming,” she said.

•••

The racial inequality and segregation she had seen as a young child would stay with Helen for a lifetime.

In 1941, she entered Bessie Tift College for Women where as a 17-year-old, she heard Clarence Jordan preach.

Jordan was the founder of the interracial Koinoinia Christian commune in Southwest Georgia and gave sermons of his “Cotton Patch Gospel.” Jordan retold Bible stories, but with a modern day twist that often revolved around racial justice issues. He was a social justice preacher before that became popular in the 1960s.

The story Helen heard him tell in 1941 was about the Good Samaritan, only in Jordan's Cotton Patch version, the Good Samaritan was a black man helping a white man along the roadside in the modern day South.

Helen said later that Jordan’s talk “converted” her to a lifetime of social justice causes.

•••

When WWII began, Helen quit college for a year to work, then returned to her education in 1943 in Milledgeville at Georgia State College for Women.

There, she became active in the YWCA and its activism for racial equality and women’s rights. Through that organization, Helen was introduced to other young “radicals” of the era who began organizing for social change involving racial and gender issues.

Helen later recalled that the college also had a lot of women professors who had been activists in the suffragist movement and who were strong voices for women’s rights at the school.

Her college years were also at a time of great social change in Georgia with the war effort and its impact on the role of women in the workforce. It was also the first time Georgia had a "progressive" governor, Ellis Arnall, who pushed a successful effort to allow 18-year-olds to vote and who adopted a more moderate tone on racial issues.

In 1946, Helen became active in the “Children’s Crusade” in the state. Progressive activists, including Helen, organized college students in an effort to keep the governor’s office in more liberal hands (Arnall couldn’t run for re-election and they supported another candidate, who won the popular vote, but lost the governor’s seat from the old county-unit system in the state.)

After graduating college in 1947, Helen moved to Atlanta for a time and then entered Duke University. There, she met Judd Lewis, a graduate student, whom she married the following year.

Back in Atlanta in 1948, Helen helped organize some interracial meetings of college YWCA and divinity school students from around the South. But one of those events was raided by the Atlanta police after neighbors complained of seeing black and white students together in the building. Helen and the others were charged with disturbing the peace.

The Atlanta newspapers played up the incident, saying it was an interracial "dance," an explosive charge in that era. The court delayed hearing the case due to a fear of Klan violence. The charges were eventually dropped.

It wouldn't be the last time Helen was arrested for social justice actions.

Later in 1948, Helen and Judd moved to Charlottsville, Va. where they entered the University of Virginia. In 1949, Helen wrote a masters thesis that compared the women’s movement for gender equality with the civil rights movement for racial equality. It was a groundbreaking work in her academic field.

Helen had been focused on civil rights throughout her youth, but that focus was about to move into another direction.

•••

By the mid-1950s, Helen and her husband were working at a small college in Southwestern Virginia. There, Helen was introduced to the local coal mining and the culture of poverty and environmental damage it had created in the area.

Over the next 15 years, Helen’s focus would be primarily on the impact of coal mining in Appalachia and more broadly, the subcultures of Appalachia that she had come to know.

Helen became something of a “radical” in that time, once getting fired from a teaching job in Tennessee because she was considered to have radicalized students too much. She was also arrested once during a miner's strike at a coal mine.

Eventually, Helen’s work led to a thesis that coal mining had created an internal “colonial” structure in parts of Appalachia. The idea of Appalachia as an internal colonel was n't new, but Helen popularized the idea through her teaching, academic papers and lectures.

In 1970, she got her PhD from the University of Kentucky with her thesis being focused on coal mining families and she continued teaching sociology in various colleges in Appalachia.

By the mid-1970s, Helen had divorced Judd and her focus took on an international flavor as she began traveling all around the world to study exploited cultures and environmental problems. She was especially interested in the coal mining issues in Wales and how they compared to what she had seen.

Helen eventually left formal academic teaching and began participating in various activist programs, such as the Highlander Research and Education Center where she served as director for a time.

She received many, many honors over the years from colleges and other groups for her social justice work in Appalachia and her groundbreaking academic work.

Around 1997, she moved back to Georgia to be close to her sister, her only remaining family. When her sister retired to the North Georgia mountains, Helen followed.

After her sister died, Helen moved again out of Georgia and back into Central Appalachia.

In 2012, she published a book of poetry, "The Nature of Things: Poems of Flora and Protests."

 •••

I never met Helen Matthews Lewis. I only found out about her by accident while researching another article.

This Friday, Oct. 2, Helen will turn 96 years old. She lives in a memory care facility in another state and, unfortunatly, was unable to be interviewed for this article about her growing up in Jackson County.

But it is clear in reading the various interviews she gave over the years, and a biography about her published in 2012, that the small incident from her childhood in Jackson County was very important to her and helped shape the activist direction her life took. 

While she lived in Georgia with her sister, she gave a sermon to the small church she attended in Cherry Log. In that sermon, she said the following:

"We don't all have to be protestors, but let us remember those who have confronted pharaohs, governors, county commissioners, corporations and unjust laws," she said. "Let us remember those who broke the law to do the right thing, and those who are developing alternatives and building and rebuilding communities."

Helen Matthews Lewis lived a remarkable life of purpose and protest.

Here, in her home county, she should not be forgotten.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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(1) comment

Patricia Armstrong

Thank you for sharing her story. Amazing and inspiring.

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