Helen Lewis, March 9, 2015


Helen Lewis, March 9, 2015


United States--Race relations.
College teaching.
College teachers--Political activity
Universities and colleges--Faculty.
Appalshop, Inc.
Appalachian Region--Social conditions
Appalachians (People) in motion pictures
Documentary films.
Motion pictures--Production and direction.
Regionalism--Appalachian Region
Rural conditions


In this interview, Helen Lewis discusses her childhood in rural Georgia and her early experiences with race relations. She tells the story of meeting the man who her father called "the most educated man in town," an African American preacher named Mr. Rakestraw. She talks about her excitement over meeting Mr. Rakestraw and her reactions to the racist comments made by a friend of her mother's. She talks about moving to Cumming, Georgia, a town where all of the Black residents had been run out by the white townspeople, and where patios were paved with the gravestones from the African American cemetery.

Lewis talks about attending Georgia State College for Women where she became involved in political organizing and the civil rights movement through her association with the YWCA. She discusses how religion and social activism became connected in her mind through various experiences, including her discovery of Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch Gospel." She talks about being arrested for participating in an interracial meeting.

Lewis talks about trying to get a job at the University of Virginia, who would not hire her full time because her husband was employed there. She talks about her career path; studying at Duke University, Berkeley, and the University of Kentucky in the hopes of being hired by the University of Virginia. She talks about working at Clinch Valley College, and then East Tennessee State University as the director of their new social work program, but says she was fired for "nurturing radical students" who were protesting compulsory military training after the Vietnam War. Lewis talks about returning to Clinch Valley College where she began to see film as a tool for social change. She talks about how her project in Wales filming coal mining communities began, and discusses the cultural exchange she created between Appalachia and the Welsh miners.

Lewis talks about returning to America and beginning to work for Appalshop. She talks about her students that were making films at the time, and discusses her role at Appalshop providing funding and acting as a bridge between the filmmakers and local advisors. Throughout the interview she talks about the people involved with Appalshop and their works and personalities. She talks about the "History of Appalachia" film series which began with the film "Strangers and Kin." Lewis talks about the reactions to the film from people in the Appalachian region, and specifically in Letcher County, Kentucky. She says the film made some people recognize the harm of stereotypes about Appalachia, while others felt that the film perpetuated those stereotypes. She discusses whether Appalshop has simply replaced negative stereotypes with "more beautiful" stereotypes which often ignore the diversity of the region. She talks about why government funding for the project was cancelled and whether "Strangers and Kin" was the right choice for the first film of the series.

Lewis talks about her continued relationship with Appalshop after the cancellation of the "History of Appalachia" series, and discusses the challenges Appalshop has overcome. She talks about the future of Appalshop and says that they need to find the people whose stories have not been told yet. She talks about the effectiveness of activism today.






Jeffrey A. Keith
Rayna Gellert


Helen Lewis

Interview Keyword

Letcher County (Ky.)
Coal miners
Whitesburg (Ky.)
Highlander Research and Education Center (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Civil rights movements--United States




“Helen Lewis, March 9, 2015,” Exploring the Legacies of Appalshop Oral History Project, accessed March 31, 2023, https://nunncenter.net/legaciesofappalshop/items/show/1.