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date: 24 September 2022

Lewis, Cornelia “Nell” Battlefree

(28 May 1893–26 Nov. 1956)

Lewis, Cornelia “Nell” Battlefree

(28 May 1893–26 Nov. 1956)
  • Elizabeth Gillespie McRae

Lewis, Cornelia “Nell” Battle (28 May 1893–26 Nov. 1956), journalist, lawyer, and educator, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Richard Henry Lewis, a physician, and his second wife, Mary Gordon Lewis of Albemarle County, Virginia. Nell (as she was always known) was named after Dr. Lewis’s first wife, and raised by his third, Annie Blackwell, along with three older half-brothers and a half-sister. Educated at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, she excelled at basketball, debating, and writing and served as the editor of the school’s annual publication and monthly magazine, both named Muse. Graduating from St. Mary’s in 1911, she first went to Goucher College in Baltimore for the 1912–1913 school year. After an unexceptional academic performance, she made her way to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in September 1913. There, she thrived, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1917.

Lewis spent the next year in Manhattan, studying art and advertising and working at a bank before she left for France in 1918 as a Y-Girl with the YMCA, working in a cafeteria, commissary, library, and for a newspaper to keep American soldiers entertained as they awaited transport home. She returned to the United States and to Raleigh in 1919. Lewis embraced the aesthetic of the “New Woman,” and interviewed with the Raleigh News and Observer wearing pants, a blazer, and sporting bobbed hair. She became the first female staff writer in July 1920, assuming responsibility for “A Corner for Kiddies,” and a frustrating but brief stint as editor of “The Society Page.” She wrote some feature articles on state politics and women’s suffrage, and in September of 1921 began her column, “Incidentally,” which would run with few interruptions until her death.

In “Incidentally,” read across the state, she offered an unflinching critique of the New South, rejecting the mantra of materialism and condemning the business and labor practices of textile industry owners (which included two of her half-brothers). She chided the reactionary anti-communism of the Daughters of the American Revolution and highlighted the poor conditions of white working-class women. A former suffragist and feminist, she championed women in the workplace and politics, serving as the publicity director for the Board of Charities and Welfare (1922–1924), for the League of Women Voters (1922), for the State Federation of Women’s Clubs (1922), and in 1923 for the Legislative Council, an umbrella organization for women’s organizations in the state. She regularly mocked religious fundamentalists, defended the study of evolution, allied herself with H. L. Mencken’s criticism of the South, and attacked the Ku Klux Klan. She called for prison reform and advocated for equal institutions for Black and white North Carolinians. She authored an impressive 1929 report, “Capital Punishment in North Carolina,” condemning the practice. Celebrated by professor Edward Mims in The Advancing South (1926) for her politics, elegant writing, and intellectual honesty, Lewis exemplified, for many, a progressive South and earned the nickname “Battling Nell.”

The late 1920s was her most active era. In 1928 she entered electoral politics, running unsuccessfully for a Wake County seat for the General Assembly. She devoted the rest of 1928 to campaigning for the also unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith. Meanwhile, she studied law under North Carolina’s assistant attorney general Walter Siler and in 1927 took law classes at Columbia University before passing the bar. Opening up a law office in downtown Raleigh in 1931, Lewis defended the reformatory residents who had set fire to the Samarcand Manor, a state-supported training school for white girls. Despite her effort, twelve of the sixteen accused girls were sentenced to jail time.

In 1929 Lewis earned national notoriety when she covered the textile workers in the Gastonia and Marion strike. Lewis’s defense of the Loray Mill workers, of the National Textile Workers’ Union and communist organizers, and of murdered striker Ella Mae Wiggins exemplified her critique of rampant industrial capitalism, the vulnerability of working-class women, and the failure of the state’s elected leaders to protect their citizens. The Nation published her assessment of the strike, and her public advocacy earned her the condemnation of textile owners, anti-communists, and her own family.

During the Great Depression, Lewis suffered from physical and mental health issues that resulted in several sanatorium stays and experimentation with psychoanalysis and alternative medical therapies. In 1937 she also began a seven-year tenure teaching English and Bible Studies at St. Mary’s. Her peers noted her increased conservatism during this period. Even though she defended Langston Hughes’s visit to the University of North Carolina, reviewed African American writers and poets, and continued to call for prison and mental health reform, she also celebrated “mammies” as ideal Black women and claimed that the Black intellectuals who condemned segregation in the 1944 UNC Press book, What the Negro Wants, did not represent average Black North Carolinians. They, Lewis suggested, were satisfied with segregation and white-directed racial change.

In the aftermath of World War II Lewis called for a world federation, like the United Nations, that would conserve life by ending threats of war. Her fears of communism, however, rose by 1948, and she campaigned relentlessly against Henry Wallace’s Crusade for Peace and his subsequent presidential campaign. Frustrated by her paper’s support of Wallace, she moved to the conservative Raleigh Times in 1948. There, she campaigned against Communist activity, including at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her former friend Frank Porter Graham, president of the university and a member of President Harry Truman’s Civil Rights Commission, became a frequent target. In 1950 both her column “Incidentally” and Lewis returned to the News and Observer. That summer she collaborated with radio commentator and future North Carolina senator Jesse Helms to attack Frank Porter Graham for his stances on racial and social justice, leading to his defeat in the primary run-off for the Senate.

Lewis’s belief in states’ rights took center stage in the 1950s. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Lewis joined forces with many of her former political enemies to call for massive resistance to racial integration. She published pamphlets attacking school integration with the funding of textile magnate Erwin Allen Holt and drummed up support for white supremacist organizations such as the Patriots of North Carolina and the North Carolina Defenders of States’ Rights. Lewis told her readers and correspondents that with resistance, they could delay, indefinitely, school integration. She did not witness that initial success, dying outside her home in Raleigh of a heart attack.

Nell Battle Lewis’s feminism, iconoclasm, and journalistic acumen in the 1920s at times have overshadowed her later role as an architect for massive resistance to the civil rights movement. Her writings and life demonstrate the uncomfortable but not uncommon alliance between white feminism and progressive politics of the middle decades of the twentieth century and a broader politics of racial inequity.

Bibliography

An extensive collection of Nell Battle Lewis’s personal papers are at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in Raleigh, North Carolina. A scrapbook about her is found in the Kemp Plummer Lewis Papers at the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Material related to Lewis is also at Smith College Archives, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. Her column, “Incidentally” ran in the Raleigh News and Observer from 1921 to 1956. For biographical information, see Alexander S. Leidholdt, Battling Nell: The Life of Southern Journalist Cornelia Battle Lewis, 1893–1956 (2009).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat See also Mollie C. Davis, “Lewis, ‘Nell’ Cornelia,” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1991);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Linda Lou Green, “Nell Battle Lewis: Crusading Columnist, 1921–1938,” M.A. thesis, East Carolina University, 1969; and Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, “Nell Battle Lewis: The Political Journey of a Liberal White Supremacist,” North Carolina Women: Their Lives, Their Histories (2015).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat An obituary appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer 28 Nov. 1956.