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Remembering the ‘Grandmother’ of Appalachian studies Helen Matthews Lewis

Helen Matthews Lewis has been called “The Grandmother” of Appalachian studies. She’s remembered for her career as an Appalachian scholar, teacher and activist across southwest Virginia.
Don Midciff
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Helen Matthews Lewis has been called “The Grandmother” of Appalachian studies. She’s remembered for her career as an Appalachian scholar, teacher and activist across southwest Virginia.

A woman who has been called “The Grandmother” of Appalachian studies, Helen Matthews Lewis, died on Sept 4. She’s remembered for her career as an Appalachian scholar, teacher and activist across southwest Virginia.

Helen Matthews Lewis was a champion of social justice and was involved in many fights to defend the health and safety of people across Appalachia.

She helped spearhead the Appalachian studies movement-- to fight against stereotypes of the region.

“People say that Helen is the grandmother – sometimes I say the mother- of Appalachian Studies. And she is,” said Theresa Burriss, director of Appalachian Studies at Radford University. Burriss teaches about Lewis’ writing and activism and said Lewis was a fierce defender of social and environmental justice.

“She was such a trailblazer, she was brave. Innovative, just an incredible human being.”

Burriss said Lewis was one of the first scholars who helped define Appalachian people in a positive light. “It’s the Helen Lewis’s and Helen Lewis in particular who had an impact on me on seeing the great riches and cultural wealth of our region. And to be proud of where I’m from.”

“Lewis could take the most wretched situation and turn it towards hope— groups of fragmented and lonely people whom she shaped into communities with good food, and conversations long into the night about what matters most,” said Barbara Ellen Smith, professor emerita at Virginia Tech, and author of several books about activism in Appalachia. “She was truly visionary.”

Lewis was born in an Appalachian region of Georgia and came to Southwest Virginia in 1955. She taught at several colleges and universities, including the Clinch Valley College (now the University of Virginia's College at Wise).

Helen Matthews Lewis has been called “The Grandmother” of Appalachian studies. She’s remembered for her career as an Appalachian scholar, teacher and activist across southwest Virginia.
Theresa Burriss
/
Helen Matthews Lewis has been called “The Grandmother” of Appalachian studies. She’s remembered for her career as an Appalachian scholar, teacher and activist across southwest Virginia.

She recorded oral histories with coal miners and their families, here in Virginia and in coal mining communities in Wales. She served as President of the Appalachian Studies Association, and that organization created the Helen Lewis Community Service Award in her honor.

According to her obituary, Lewis died due to complications following COVID-19. She was 97 years old.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.