We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Battling Nell

The Life of Southern Journalist Cornelia Battle Lewis, 1893–1956

Alexander S. Leidholdt

Publication Year: 2009

A longtime columnist for the Raleigh News and Observer, Cornelia Battle Lewis earned a national reputation in the 1920s and 1930s for her courageous advocacy on behalf of women’s rights, African Americans, children, and labor unions. Late in her life, however, after fighting mental illness, Lewis reversed many of her stances and railed against the liberalism she had spent her life advancing. In Battling Nell, Alexander S. Leidholdt tells the compelling and ultimately tragic life story of this groundbreaking journalist against the backdrop of the turbulent post-Reconstruction Jim Crow South and speculates about the cause of her extraordinary transformation. The daughter of North Carolina’s most prominent public health official, Lewis grew up in Raleigh, but her experiences at Smith College in Massachusetts, and later in France during World War I, led her to question the prevailing racial attitudes and gender roles of her native region. In 1920, Lewis began her storied career with the News and Observer. Inspired by H. L. Mencken’s scathing criticism of the South, she soon established herself as the region’s leading female liberal journalist. Her column, “Incidentally,” attacked the Ku Klux Klan, lobbied against the exploitation of mill workers, defended strikers during the notorious communist-organized Gastonia labor violence, mocked religious fundamentalists who fought the teaching of evolution, and decried lynch law. A suffragist and a feminist who saw women’s rights as inextricably linked to human rights, Lewis ran for state legislature in 1928 and was one of the first women in North Carolina to be admitted to the bar. In the 1930s, however, Lewis faced repeated institutionalizations for a debilitating bout of mental illness and sought treatment from Christian Science practitioners, spiritualists, and psychotherapists. As she aged, her views grew increasingly reactionary, and she insisted that she had served as a communist dupe during the Gastonia strike and trials, that communists had infiltrated the University of North Carolina, and that many of her former progressive allies had ties to communism. Finally, many of her opinions completely reversed, and in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, she served as an influential spokesperson for the South’s massive resistance to public school desegregation. She continued to espouse these conservative beliefs until her death in 1956. In his detailed retelling of Lewis’s fascinating life, Leidholdt chronicles the turbulent history of North Carolina from the 1920s through the 1950s, as industrialization and racial integration began to tear at the region’s conservative fabric. He vividly explains the background and ramifications of Lewis’s many controversial stances and explores the possible reasons for her ideological about-face. Through the extraordinary story of “Battling Nell,” Leidholdt reveals how the complex issues of gender, labor, and race intertwined to influence the convulsive events that shaped the course of early twentieth-century southern history.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Biography Series


pdf iconDownload PDF (25.7 KB)
pp. viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (40.3 KB)
pp. ix

I am deeply indebted to the many librarians and archivists who assisted me in my research. At the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection reference librarian Matthew Turi, university archivist Janis Holder, and the staff in the Manuscripts Department provided invaluable assistance. At the North Carolina...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (42.5 KB)
pp. 1-3

Cornelia “Nell” Battle Lewis inhabits a unique and notable niche in the annals of the southern press. She also claims a significant rung in the liberation and advancement of women in the American South and beyond. Her invasion of the fourth estate as North Carolina’s first female columnist and one of a very few in the nation...

read more

1 A Gilded Cage

pdf iconDownload PDF (142.3 KB)
pp. 4-21

Cornelia “Nell” Battle Lewis’s birth on 28 May 1893 in Raleigh, North Carolina, occurred at a crossroads in the state’s history. With the Cotton Mill Campaign and industrialization running full tilt, the myth of the New South subsumed that of the Lost Cause as the state...

read more

2 Beyond the Pale

pdf iconDownload PDF (222.4 KB)
pp. 22-53

For a student who had not displayed a sustained interest in academics during her tenure at St. Mary’s, Nell Lewis seemed to choose unaccountably to attend the most rigorous woman’s college in the South, Baltimore’s newly named Goucher College. At St. Mary’s she had played the role of what Goucher’s student magazine, the Kalends...

read more

3 A Mind of Her Own

pdf iconDownload PDF (185.9 KB)
pp. 54-79

Within less than a half- year despondency replaced the optimism with which Lewis had viewed her future upon returning from France. Her love affair with Chambers ended unexpectedly, painfully, and humiliatingly. Neither the Chambers nor the Lewis papers tell the cause of the romance’s ending...

read more

4 A Knife in the Back

pdf iconDownload PDF (263.6 KB)
pp. 80-117

Within less than a half- year despondency replaced the optimism with which Lewis had viewed her future upon returning from France. Her love affair with Chambers ended unexpectedly, painfully, and humiliatingly. Neither the Chambers nor the Lewis papers tell the cause of the romance’s ending...

read more

5 Barbarous Gaston

pdf iconDownload PDF (296.6 KB)
pp. 118-160

Almost immediately after its founding in September 1928, the communistcontrolled National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), which termed itself “a fighting organization controlled by the workers,” had audaciously begun to reconnoiter Gastonia, a textile town twenty miles west of Charlotte. “North Carolina is the key to the...

Image Plates

pdf iconDownload PDF (16.8 MB)

read more

6 In Desperation

pdf iconDownload PDF (206.2 KB)
pp. 161-189

Illness removed Lewis from the next clash between North Carolina’s mill establishment and the state’s progressive community, diminished her connectedness to her Tar Heel allies, and forced her dependence in a fragile condition on her brothers. In January 1930 she departed Raleigh for Charlottesville, where for the next four months...

read more

7 "A Poor Burnt Child"

pdf iconDownload PDF (191.0 KB)
pp. 190-215

Lewis cherished Chapel Hill and its venerable university, which she and her ancestors and relations had nurtured and promoted from its earliest days. Her parents had named her for her father’s deceased first wife, Cornelia “Nellie” Battle Lewis, the oldest daughter of University of North Carolina president Kemp Plummer Battle. Lewis...

read more

8 New Battlegrounds

pdf iconDownload PDF (226.8 KB)
pp. 216-247

Nell Lewis praised God in her 19 August 1945 installment of “Incidentally” as she marked the yielding by Japan five days earlier to the Allies’ terms of surrender. She expressed her deep gratitude to the Lord for the “inestimable blessing of peace which has come at last to the tortured world” and for the “victory of the forces of...

read more

9 Fanning the Flames

pdf iconDownload PDF (169.3 KB)
pp. 248-270

“Hark from the Tomb,” Lewis entitled her resurrection of “Incidentally” in the News and Observer on New Year’s Day at the century’s midpoint. Despite their often flinty relationship, Jonathan Daniels had expressed to her the previous spring his willingness to...

read more

10 "With All Deliberate Speed"

pdf iconDownload PDF (180.4 KB)
pp. 271-294

During the several years immediately preceding the Supreme Court’s unanimous landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education on 17 May 1954, which reversed Plessy v. Ferguson and concluded “that in the fi eld of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Lewis frequently faced disappointment and sadness...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (72.3 KB)
pp. 295-302

Early on the morning of 27 November 1956, a paper boy delivering the News and Observer discovered Nell Lewis’s body in her front yard. The door to her automobile remained partly open from the night before, and she was still clutching her purse and keys. The...


pdf iconDownload PDF (141.6 KB)
pp. 303-320


pdf iconDownload PDF (97.9 KB)
pp. 321-339

E-ISBN-13: 9780807136706
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807134559

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Southern Biography Series