Teacher, author, activist Helen Lewis interviewed

Posted by | June 17, 2011

“The Radical Roots Project brings together the stories of some of the region’s most thoughtful and cherished voices of cultural and political resistance through audio, photography, and word,” says site founder Taylor Kirkland. The following piece is a short excerpt from Kirkland’s interview with Helen Lewis about the latter’s early days teaching Appalachian Studies in Wise, VA. The interview originally ran on the Radical Roots site on June 10, 2011 and is reposted here with permission.

As a sociologist, scholar, community organizer, educator, and activist, Helen Lewis has worked extensively throughout the region as Director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College, Director of Appalshop’s Appalachian History Film Project, and Director of the Highlander Research and Education Center. At the young age of eighty-seven, she is semi-retired but continues to teach, write, consult and lecture. Lewis lives in the mountains in Morganton, Georgia with her three cats and stays actively involved with her local community.

“I’ve been in education nearly all my life, but I’ve always thought of myself more as an organizer of students than a teacher. I taught sociology at Clinch Valley College in Wise, Virginia for a number of years in the 60s and 70s. As a teacher I saw the value of studying sociology from the traditional academic perspective, but I felt strongly that people’s minds were most captivated through experience.

“So in my classes I had my students going out and talking to people in the community, conducting research in the courthouse, and taking fieldtrips to the places we were talking about. I wasn’t interested in picking up broken pieces in these rural communities but with changing the system itself—I wanted my students working for real social change. That’s what social work is all about, it seems to me.

“When I first moved to Clinch Valley, strip mining was beginning, the mines were being mechanized, and the community was falling apart economically. A lot of families were leaving for Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit—any place they could find work.

“An enormous amount of local history was being lost with of all these rapid changes, so I designed my classes in a way that we could study and record the knowledge and experiences within local communities. Some of my students interviewed family members who worked in the mines, while others collected oral histories of old time musicians in the area.

“One of my early students, Jack Wright, had just come back from Vietnam and was a rock and roll musician. He didn’t have any particular interest in mountain music at that time, so I helped him arrange interviews with Doc Boggs and some of the other traditional musicians in the community.

“Beth Bingman, another student in that class, did an amazing study on a little coal camp in Esserville, a town that had thousands of coke ovens that burned and smoked and polluted the whole area. That community study took us into peoples’ homes who lived by the ovens, as well as into the businesses along the highway. These homes were in poor condition and didn’t have plumbing or running water. And the men were paid in scrip, and many of the families were in debt to the company store where the scrip had to be spent.

“We put together a big book of all the stories we collected from each of these communities and put it in the library at Clinch Valley. It was about the only place where these stories were being told.

“In my early years of teaching Appalachian Studies I had the students choose the topic we would study for the semester. So they would choose the topic, come up with research questions, and help organize events and guest speakers throughout the semester.

“They were also in charge of planning a community forum every Wednesday night, a time where community members and students could come and learn about what we were doing and listen to a guest speaker.

“One semester the students chose to study music, so I asked Rich Kirby, a friend working at Appalshop, to make me a bunch of tapes of traditional ballads and other kinds of mountain music. My students listened to those tapes over and over, and then divided into groups to plan a community forum based on the musical tradition they had chosen.

“They were responsible for finding and booking the musicians, organizing the program, and running the show from start to finish. We had a little bit of money to pay musicians, but some of them brought their grandmothers in to sing or play, so it didn’t cost us much.

“One semester we studied coal mining. We talked with strip miners, coal miner’s wives, and the owners of coal companies. At one of our forums we arranged for a few doctors from West Virginia to come and talk about black lung disease. The students thought we should invite disabled miners, so the doctors talked with the Black Lung Organization and let the word out that we would be happy to host anyone who was interested.

“We thought a handful of folks might show up, but we ended up having to move the class to the gymnasium after over 450 disabled miners showed up. After the program the students set up a table and put up a sign that read, ‘To join the Virginia Black Lung Movement sign up here.’ Well, there was no such thing as the Virginia Black Lung Movement! They started it right there out of that class.

“That same semester Frankie Taylor wanted to study the tax records of coal companies in the region. So he took this adding machine—we didn’t have computers in those days—down to the courthouse and told them he wanted to see the tax records of all the coal companies working in the area. That was public information, of course, but they told Frankie, ‘You’re gonna get in trouble, boy. You can’t do this.’ But that’s what Frankie ended up studying, and it did cause a little stir.

“We also invited Jock Yablonski, the United Mine Workers (UMW) reform candidate, to come and speak at one of our community forums. He got back to me and said he was afraid to come to Wise County because it was a pro-Boyle county. Tony Boyle was the current UMWA president and widely known for political corruption and for taking sides with mine owners rather than the miners themselves.

“The head of the union in Wise, a Boyle supporter, knew that I had invited Yablonski, so he was not happy with what I was doing with my students. We couldn’t get Yablonski to come to Wise, so we went over to Grundy to see him speak. When the election came up my students helped set up and run the polls.

“These were the kinds of things that made the coal companies very upset with us. They were angry at me and my students for working with grassroots community groups, for digging through tax records, and for supporting union reform. The chancellor at Clinch Valley told me, ‘The Union is against you, and the coal operators are against you too. I’m having a hard time with this.’

“I started receiving threats because of the work I was doing with my students. Someone threatened to burn my house down. My husband, of course, was very upset with all of this. I was too much of an activist for him, something that was part of the break up of our marriage. But this was the kind of teaching I was doing, and the program was really good. It wasn’t time for me to stop.

“Each week all of these remarkable things were happening and I could see my students making all of these important connections between resource extraction and poverty. Instead of being removed from the social and economic problems of the region, they were studying and understanding these issues through the curriculum itself.

“While I was teaching these classes in Appalachian Studies I also taught a class called Urban Sociology. I didn’t think it would do much good talking about urban sociology without visiting urban areas, so during the January term I took my students to New York City for a few weeks.

“I made arrangements to stay at the YMCA dormitory in Mid-town, and we started a program learning about New York City’s Puerto Rican community. We wanted to explore the social and political issues Puerto Rican immigrants were facing in New York City and look for ways to apply those experiences to our context in Appalachia. So we went out and talked with immigrants, visited agencies, and met with community leaders.

“We met with the Black Panthers and with the New York chapter of the Young Lords, a group fighting for democratic rights for Puerto Ricans communities. The Young Lords set up community projects similar to those of the Black Panthers but with a Latino flavor, such as free breakfast programs, dental clinics, and community day care centers.

“One day we visited a church where the Young Lords were running one of their breakfast programs and met with one of the leaders. He told us his personal story and how the group came about. As he was finishing he told us, ‘Anytime you try to make any changes you get killed. There’s John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. We’ll probably be next.’

“We left the church and went to Times Square and into a record store. When we walked in Taj Mahal was singing ‘Oh Death,’ a song written by Doc Boggs, the old coal miner from Norton who had been to our classes and whom Jack had interviewed. When we walked outside I looked up at the news ticker and it read: Jock Yablonski Killed with Wife and Daughter.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was the most incredible experience standing there with all of these things converging. One of my students said, ‘Remember what that man said in the church?’ So we went back to the dormitory and stayed up all night talking about what had happened and trying to understand how all the pieces fit together. You can’t plan those kinds of learning experiences.”

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