Helen Matthews Lewis has long been heralded as a leading voice in Appalachian Studies. Born in 1924 in rural Georgia, she made her way to Appalachia in 1955 to teach sociology at Clinch Valley College (later University of Virginia's College at Wise). There she developed a lifelong interest in coal mining and the culture and history of the Appalachian coal fields. In the 1970s she helped to establish Appalachian Studies, drawing on the energy of the war on poverty, a wave of progressive movements, and more democratic educational models. Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, with co-editors Patricia D. Beaver and Judith Jennings, brings together in one volume Lewis's many contributions to Appalachian Studies. This collection provides the historical backdrop to Lewis's career and activism, and it offers a glimpse into the personal influences and struggles that helped to shape her.
Lewis and the editors knit together oral history interviews, excerpts from essays, speeches, reports and proposals, reflections from former students and colleagues, and poetry and recipes to create a tapestry of Lewis's extraordinary personal and academic life. Each chapter captures a phase in the life of Helen Lewis. The first chapter charts her childhood and young adulthood in the Jim Crow South. Her earliest forays into progressive activism were as a student at Georgia State College for Women. There she became involved in progressive social and political campaigns, including the YWCA, which was promoting interracial solidarity in the 1930s and 1940s. Chapter two (1955-1977) covers Lewis's move to Appalachia and her growing interest in the coal-field economy, culture, and history, as well as the intellectual development of internal colonialism. Documents in chapter three (1975-1985) trace Lewis's transition to [End Page 89] comparative research and include her studies on the similarities and differences between Welsh and Appalachian working-class communities. This chapter also includes sources from Lewis's work at the Highlander Research and Education Center, where she used her deep knowledge of the coal fields and Appalachia to develop community-based health projects. Chapter four (1983-1999) details Lewis's activist model: participatory research. Lewis developed relationships with working-class and rural women to create economic development, education, and leadership programs in which grassroots participants researched problems in their communities and conceived possible solutions. In the last chapter (1999-2010) Lewis continues to do what she does best: tell stories based on her own experiences and use her vast knowledge of the Appalachian region to speak to broader national and global issues.
This book not only encapsulates the incredible life of one woman, but it documents a rich history of social movements in the twentieth century. One comes away from the book with a deeper understanding of how the Appalachian Movement was part of what historian Van Gosse has termed the "movement of movements" in the second half of the twentieth century. Through Lewis's stories and documents we realize the push and pull of a cross section of movements, from the black freedom struggle, women's rights movements, and anti-imperialism to environmental and economic justice movements. This book will be a useful resource for teachers of Appalachian history, southern history, women's history, and the history of twentieth-century social movements. The blend of oral history narrative and essays make this an accessible and enjoyable read for undergraduates and a good teaching tool. The bibliography and host of primary documents provide a treasure trove of research topics for the graduate student developing a project on Appalachia. With its range of sources and topics, this book reveals the breadth and depth of scholarship and activism in Appalachia and will no doubt become a classic in Appalachian Studies.