3 IN YOUR TOWN: The history of Grundy County's Highlander Folk School
Highlander Folk School was established in 1932 by Tennessean, Myles Horton. The original purpose of the school was to educate the poor and offer courses in organized labor while providing on-campus jobs for those who attended.
The school gave no grades, credits, examinations, or degrees; the needs of the students largely determined the curriculum of the sessions. Faculty members refrained from imposing a preconceived set of ideas. Instead, they used visiting speakers, movies, audio recordings, drama, and music to identify common issues, offer broader perspectives, and introduce promising strategies. Workshop participants evaluated their findings, assessed their new understanding of their concerns, and made plans to initiate or sustain activities when they returned to their communities.
"What Myles Horton attempted to do when he started Highlander was to educate those people and give them a voice in what they considered was their role in American democracy,” David Currey, former chairman of the Tennessee Preservation Trust board of directors. “Because they were being left behind."
Highlander's teachers began holding workshops on public school desegregation in 1953, nearly a year before the U.S. Supreme Court's momentous decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the subsequent emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the South. This attracted names like King, Abernathy and Parks.
"It is a who's who in what becomes the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s,” says Currey. “Some of the origins and genesis of trying to learn about non-violence begins here at Highlander. Rosa Parks is here about four months before the Montgomery bus boycott and she's learning about non-violence. I mean people think this is a little seamstress that doesn't give up her seat on the bus. No, it was planned and some of that planning took place right here. Of course years later when Rosa Parks was asked about the role of Highlander and how it affected her, she said that Highlander was everything."
The conversations at Highlander sparked new ideas about social justice. College students gathered at the folk school to explore the possible directions and goals for a new era of black protest; they also learned “freedom songs” adapted by Highlander musicians.
"There were some cotton field workers that came here to Highlander around 1944 to ‘45 and they brought this song with them,” explains Currey. “In 1957 when Pete Seeger came back, it was finally introduced to Pete Seeger and so he changed a couple of the verses. And he changed it to, "We Shall Overcome." An eventually it becomes a significant part of the Civil Rights movement and it's literally the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
As the black civil rights movement exploded, the school became a lightning rod for segregationists who condemned it as a communist and radical breeding ground.
“And the reason they attacked it on that principal was that we are a democratic, capitalist society,” says Currey. “And anything that ran counter to that, anybody who objected to that system or did not feel like that they were part of that, were labeled counter to that. Of course in that times of the 1950s, the counter to that was communism…The Red Scare.”
Though letters sent to the State of Tennessee from the Department of Justice and 'Hoover's FBI' proclaimed Highlander innocent of all communistic accusations. But state and local officials still wanted the school closed.
The State of Tennessee was able to close Highlander on the technicality of ‘illegal' alcohol sales. They found out that workers were paying a quarter to buy beer out of a tub on the property at the end of their shift.
"That's what happened, says Currey. “And Highlander was operating... I don't want to say illegally, but counter to the Jim Crow laws in the state that did not allow for whites and blacks to be in the same school, to stay in the same facilities at night, to swim in the same lake.”
Although faculty members defended the school's ideology and pedagogy eloquently and often persuasively in the face of such attacks, their understandable, but loose institutional practices made them vulnerable in the 1950s. Following a headline-grabbing investigation by state legislators, a police raid, and two dramatic trials, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander's charter and confiscated its property in 1962.
This did not mean the end of Highlander. Before the final court decision on the folk school's fate, Highlander officers secured a charter for a new institution to be named the Highlander Research and Education Center. First based in Knoxville, and since 1972 near New Market, the center continues to pursue, in a new context, the folk school's original purpose, as given in its mission statement: to educate “rural and industrial leaders for a new social order” while enriching “the indigenous cultural values of the mountains.
Though the original doors are closed at Highlander, Currey believes the progress that began there continues today.
"They are the people who are on the streets fighting for your rights as an individual. To be able to vote, to be able to go to school where you want to go to school, to be able to love who you want to love, to be able to marry who you want to marry. Those are individual choices that people make and I think that Highlander, even in the 1950s was right in the center of all of that. And we're still having those debates today. It was a very accepting place for displaced people. We fight that still today."