Helen Matthews Lewis died Sunday, September 4, 2022 in Abingdon, Virginia, of complications following COVID. She was born October 2, 1924 in Nicholson, Georgia, oldest child of Hugh and Maurie Harris Matthews. She is survived by her sister’s children and grandchildren.
Helen spent a lifetime as a radical educator and activist, working for justice from the Deep South to Appalachia and internationally. Helen taught in colleges and prisons; went to jail for civil rights and stood on picket lines; planted gardens and wrote poetry. In all her work she connected, supported, and pushed people to work together and go a little farther to build communities and make change.
After attending Bessie Tift College, Helen graduated in 1946 from Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville. She received a Master of Arts degree from the University of Virginia in 1949 and a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in 1970. She received honorary doctorates from Berea College and Wake Forest University.
Much of her life was spent in education, both formal and informal. She came to Southwest Virginia in 1955 to work at Clinch Valley College (now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise). There she learned from and with her students about experiences of miners and their families. Through her speeches, community work, and numerous publications, she pioneered new interpretations of Appalachia’s history and resource exploitation that reexamined Appalachia’s role in the global economy. She taught many years at Clinch Valley College, and at East Tennessee State University, Berea College, and Appalachian State University.
Through her work at Highlander Research and Education Center she led community-based education projects in Dungannon and Ivanhoe, Virginia, and McDowell County, West Virginia; worked to build connections between mining communities in Appalachia and Wales; and worked with community educators in Nicaragua, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Working with Appalshop, she led in the production of films on the history of Appalachia. She served as President of the Appalachian Studies Association, and that organization created the Helen Lewis Community Service Award in her honor. Her pioneering work in mountain communities led her to be known as “the grandmother of Appalachian studies.”
Helen lived in a number of places across Appalachia, including Wise and Dungannon in Virginia, New Market, Tennessee, Berea, Kentucky, and Blue Ridge, Georgia. For the last years of her life she lived in the ElderSpirit community in Abingdon, Virginia. In all these places she created a warm, welcoming home where she shared fellowship and remarkable cooking. In her later years she turned to poetry and ministry, the latter informed by her lifelong understanding that “faith without works is dead.” Her life of organizing and educating, of nurturing growth in gardens and in communities, of taking care and laboring for the long arc of justice, leaves behind an interwoven network of people who loved her, admired her, and will carry on her work.
Helen will be laid to rest at the River Farm in Dungannon, Virginia. A memorial will be held at a later date. Contributions in her honor may be made to the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky to support flood relief or to the Helen Lewis Memorial at https://bit.ly/ACA-HelenLewisMemorial . Visit https://www.appalachianky.org/flood/ or 420 Main Street, Hazard KY 41701 (write “Crisis aid” on your check).
The family of Helen Lewis is being cared for by Farris Funeral Service-Main Street Chapel, 427 E. Main Street, Abingdon, VA 24210 (276) 623-2700.