Home to approximately 25 million people, Appalachia is nestled in hills and steeped in tradition. It ranges from the southern tip of New York State down to the northern parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. It is a region of abundant natural beauty and natural resources, of folk songs and farmland, of dialects and powerful voices that hold powerful opinions.
However, some Americans don’t see Appalachia in such a light. Their view is clouded by jokes and stereotypes of the ignorant, racist “hillbilly” who doesn’t speak properly, of the “trailer trash” who always drinks moonshine and never wears shoes. Although the region struggles with certain problems such as poverty, its people and culture are not stereotypes to ridicule. They are diverse, intelligent, and ever-hopeful.
This is what Helen Matthews Lewis, known as the “Mother of Appalachian Studies,” has helped others to see throughout her lifetime and career. A Georgia native, Helen has worked with miners in the coalfields of southwest Virginia and has worked with the communities of Jellico, Tennessee; McDowell County, West Virginia; and Ivanhoe, Virginia. She helped give birth to Appalachian Studies and has taught and lectured at many of the leading educational institutions in the Appalachian region. Among her other contributions, she has mentored seminarians working in the mountains; been involved in adult and community educational programs throughout the region and abroad; served as President of the Appalachian Studies Association; and held major leadership roles at the Highlander Research and Education Center and Appalshop.
Helen’s story counters negative images and stereotypes, as she has confronted rural poverty, racial prejudice, economic injustice, and traditional gender roles. Her ability to empathize, her moral courage, and her intellectual honesty have made her well-equipped for the fight for social and economic justice in Appalachia. Her life story demonstrates that, with perseverance and passion, change can occur. Communities can be impacted. Lives can be bettered—for generations to come.
If you want to learn more about Helen Matthews Lewis’s work and Appalachia, pick up a paperback copy of Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).