By Rebecca Adkins Fletcher
Appalachian Places joins the chorus across Appalachia in saying farewell to a legend. Helen Matthews Lewis, who died on Sept. 4 at the age of 97, held many roles throughout her lifetime. While she was a teacher, scholar and community activist, above all she was an advocate for the necessity of social justice work to strengthen Appalachian communities.
Her research and writings helped usher in Appalachian Studies as a recognized field of study, opening new avenues for interdisciplinary regional scholarship and activism. Earning numerous accolades throughout the years, she is perhaps most honored for her innovation in activist scholarship and community service. The Appalachian Studies Association recognizes her leadership through the Helen Lewis Community Service Award given each year to honor a leader in community service within the region.
Perhaps the true value of Helen’s legacy is what she leaves in our custody: a living primer for making communities stronger by living social justice. It is in this way that I utilize Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice (2012) as a guidebook of examples and steps that inform my own community work, and in the fostering of student-centered community engagement. This is especially true in the Appalachian Community Engagement course that I teach at East Tennessee State University as part of the Appalachian Teaching Project. As I prepare students for collaboration with our community partners, Helen's Rebuilding Communities: A Twelve-Step Recovery Program is central in our project discussions of ethics, assessment, and inclusion as we work to strengthen our community. Taking a cue from Step One- Understand your history — share memories, I am joined by current and former Appalachian Community Engagement graduate students from the Master's Program in Appalachian Studies at ETSU as we seek to honor Helen’s legacy by understanding our history and sharing memories. Together, we show the extension of her continued reach in academia, journalism, museum collections, non-profit community work and ministry.
I had opportunities to talk with Helen on too few occasions, but one discussion stands out in my memory. In the first year of my tenure-track position at ETSU, I sat next to Helen at the Appalachian Studies Association annual conference banquet. When I told her of my new job at ETSU, she quipped, “You know they fired me!” Her quip referred to her time at ETSU in the late 1960s, where she developed an innovative place-based curriculum, which featured community-based student research that questioned the status quo. However, during those turbulent times, the administration was not yet ready for such an approach. Ironically, her work at ETSU would become widely recognized as the first Appalachian Studies classes, and a decade later ETSU would become one of the leading institutions in establishing this new regional studies field.
Through her story, Helen’s advice to me was to do the work that needs doing. I have not forgotten this. On Nov. 17, 2022, with other newly tenured faculty, I participated in the 2nd annual Faculty Bookplate Reception, hosted by the Charles C. Sherrod Library. I am proud to honor Helen Matthews Lewis with my book selection, giving Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice (2012) a permanent home at ETSU.
In this spirit, what better tribute to Helen than to share the words of current and past graduate students from the Appalachian Community Engagement course as they describe the ways Helen continues to influence their careers, scholarship, and community engagement in Appalachia.
I wish I had known Helen Matthews Lewis, and I consider it a glaring deficiency in my education that I only learned about her when I began my masters in Appalachian Studies. Here was a woman who not only played a — perhaps the — crucial role in establishing Appalachian Studies as a discipline, but who gave so much to this region. When I began researching her life and her work for the 100 Days in Appalachia newsletter, I wrote following her passing that I was blown away by not only all that she had accomplished, but by her humanity.
Helen Matthews Lewis was the definition of a servant leader. She eschewed the academy in favor of applying her knowledge directly to the communities she wanted to help, committing herself not to the vainglorious pursuit of notoriety, accolades and acclaim but rather to the hard and unglamorous work of community organizing. Her refusal to be locked in the ivory tower has inspired me to use my own talents and education to better the region in any way I can, not limiting myself to research and writing. I’m not the only one. The Appalachian Studies program here at East Tennessee State University has followed in her footsteps, making community engagement and service-learning cornerstones of our program.
I see this in my own work researching how health ministries operate within Black churches in the Johnson City, Tennessee, area as part of the 2022 Appalachian Teaching Project. I am not obtaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake; I am obtaining knowledge to help my neighbors. That makes the project even more personal and rewarding.
Helen Matthews Lewis showed me and countless others how to do the hard work. . She blazed the trail that I now follow. We owe her a profound debt of gratitude, not only for establishing our discipline within the academy but also in showing us how to break free of it when needed so that we can truly help Appalachia prosper. That she did this with humility, tenacity and a sincere belief in the importance of community makes her life even more remarkable. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and Helen Matthews Lewis stands tallest of them all.
Out of all the texts I was asked to read during my first semester as an Appalachian Studies graduate student, Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia impacted me so profoundly that it inspired a literary journey in which I continued to explore Lewis's life and writings for months afterward. This is largely because t until reading about Lewis' influence in the Appalachian region as both a scholar and activist, I did not know that the merging of these two worlds was acceptable or feasible. The book provides humanistic, refreshing and humbling perspectives of Lewis’ unique influence on the academic field of Appalachian Studies and the progression of social justice advocacy in the Appalachian region.
Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia specifically shaped my time as an Appalachian Studies student and emerging museum professional because it emphasizes the varied opportunities that community outreach provides. More specifically, I still refer to an excerpt from Lewis’ Rebuilding Communities: A Twelve-Step Recovery Program (2007) that is included in the book on a regular basis. During her activism, Lewis identified 12 methods that communities should implement to grow, heal and unite in solidarity, which directly correlates to my career as a museum professional. I chose this career path because I aim to work at an institution in which its community is its central focus, and I am fortunate to have found a home here at East Tennessee State University’s Reece Museum. In my role as the collections manager, my work is embedded in many of the principles that Lewis clearly calls for: understanding community history and sharing community memories, reviving local communities, educating in a holistic, inclusive and digestible manner and encouraging community tolerance and pride. My scholarship and work is indebted to Helen Matthews Lewis’ resilience, tenacious spirit and compassion.
Reading and learning about Helen Matthews Lewis’ life has been a highlight of my graduate school career. She has inspired me beyond measure. Every single chapter of Living Social Justice in Appalachia resonated with me. There are so many things I could say and want to say surrounding Lewis’ work as an activist, feminist and scholar. Asan Appalachian woman who wishes to bring more feminism into Appalachian studies as well as fight for rural Appalachian women, I couldn’t help but admire all of Lewis’ hard work. She has fought tooth and nail to bring justice and equality to the Appalachian people. Even when she was beaten down, told she was a radical and lost funding or a job, she managed to get back on her feet and keep fighting for what she saw as important. She may not have been born in the Appalachian Mountains, but she certainly has the spirit and resilience that mountain women possess.
After completing graduate school, Lewis’ work remains prevalent in my life. I am working to create a nonprofit called Women of eastern Kentucky. For this project, I interview eastern Kentucky women about their lived experiences, then turn those interviews into performances. I call back to Lewis when struggling with funding or motivation. I look up to Lewis as a woman who fought her way into bringing radical ideas and feminist ideology into academics and rural Appalachia. . I still draw on her work to stabilize my belief that women’s rights and stories in Appalachia matter. I want to be the one giving a platform for women to tell those stories, much like Lewis. She was an inspiration to me throughout my academic career and now in my professional one.
Since learning and reading about Helen Matthews Lewis, I have learned that cultural context, existing structures and institutions all matter in community organizing, simply because people matter. The unique structure of Appalachian communities, particularly rural communities, will require certain unique organizing approaches that we cannot import from our big-city activist counterparts. Our approach must take care not to alienate the institutions that build social cohesion in Appalachian communities, such as the church.
Incorporation of faith communities has been an essential feature of social justice organizing work in my community of Johnson City, Tennessee. Tri-Cities TN/VA Mutual Aid Network (TCMAN) is a social and economic justice-oriented organization that started during the Covid-19 lockdowns. TCMAN dedicates itself to “building solidarity through mutual aid” and banding together to defend community members against systemic oppression. A significant number of central organizers of this effort are established and dedicated members of faith communities. Further, churches represent perhaps the most important institutions to our region’s Black communities. Failure to engage these churches effectively means a failure to engage the Black population.
Of course, to work effectively toward progressive social change, we must also follow Lewis’ example and have the courage to resist ignoring regressive elements in our communities. Just like the unique structures of our Appalachian communities, the regressive elements of communities are also unique. There are, for example, many religious elements within Johnson City and the surrounding region that are opposed to a social justice agenda. Even so, faith communities have proven themselves indispensable to our region's organizing efforts. If Appalachian activists fail to engage and expand our reach within faith communities, it will be a grave mistake.
Reverend Timothy Scott Holder
First discovering Helen Matthews Lewis’ Living Social Justice in Appalachia in 2020, as a seventh-generation Appalachian, a career in state and national politics since a teenager, a priest and pastor in the Episcopal Church for 25 years, I was overjoyed. I celebrate in Lewis a hero, an expositor and doer for good for Appalachia and all humanity, a creator, and truth speaker, and great champion “ a “saint” of the region that inspires and blesses my work among diverse and culturally rich constituencies in four counties of south central Appalachia.
Lewis has influenced and inspired me to become a better clergyman, human beingand son of Appalachia. She lived and taught us to reach out, stand up, and celebrate greater life, culture, wisdom, celebration, and thus, humanity. Because of the hard work of Lewis and other advocates, , in Carter County, Tennessee, and greater Appalachia, , my local parish in but a few years has begun to welcome its first openly gay priest (me), the first Latino bilingual congregation in the county — and the only one in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee — and welcome Bluegrass and Appalachian music not just outside the doors, but inside at the Altar during Holy Communion.
Through all of this, Lewis, who I was never privileged to meet, taught me volumes about pride and self worth. She powerfully taught and led others to take pride in self and community before trying to “improve” anything or anybody else. She expressed profoundly the infinite value of all human beings and creation. Lewis beautifully described it: “You are [communities] a magical sight.” Teaching us to “not shut up,” Helen Matthews Lewis exhorted and leads us today to live and celebrate, “Chanticleer! Proclaim spring’s arrival!” Lewis will be with me and all of us forever. “Redemption (forever) draweth nigh.”
Helen Matthews Lewis (1924-2022), as “grandmother” of Appalachian Studies, offers a guiding light to scholars, students, and communities for place-based collaboration. May her legacy continue to inspire those who read her words. From all of us at Appalachian Places, we invite you to understand your history, share memories and help us write the next chapter in Appalachia’s story.
Rebecca Adkins Fletcher is Assistant Director of the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services and co-editor of Appalachian Places.