​Highlander Fire Destroys Records, but Flames Hope

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
An early morning fire on March 29 destroyed the main office building and decades of historic documents, artifacts and memorabilia at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn. When the sun rose, a white supremacy symbol drawn with black spray paint showed itself in the parking lot. Highlander Center is the reincarnation of the Highlander Folk School, once located in Monteagle.
At 5:32 a.m., the New Market Volunteer Fire Department (NMVFD)received a phone call reporting a brush fire on Highlander Way. When the fire department arrived at 5:53 a.m., the building was already an inferno. For unknown reasons, the building’s burglar and fire alarm system failed to alert E-911.
Speculating on possible causes, NMVFD Captain Sammy Solomon said, “The wires could have been cut, the fire was so hot the alarm failed, the alarm wasn’t hooked up, or someone unhooked it.”
Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department and Rural Metro Fire from Knox County also responded. The fire is under investigation by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, the state fire marshal, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Bomb and Arson Squad.
The spray painted image, a borderless grid with three vertical and three horizontal lines, was the emblem of an anti-Semitic political party in Romania in the late 1920s. According to the Knox News, white supremacists have adopted the symbol, including the shooter at the recent Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre and a Knoxville area neo-Nazi group with ties to the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Founded in 1932, Highlander Folk School taught local Mountain people literacy and financial skills and how to unionize to lobby for better wages and working conditions. In the 1950s the school’s mission evolved into training up and coming civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in strategies of nonviolent protest. Fearing the growing momentum of the Civil Rights movement, the state revoked Highlander’s charter. The school moved to Knoxville and, following pressure by the KKK, on to New Market.
“My first thought was ‘let everyone be safe,’” said the center’s co director Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, who was out of town when the fire occurred. She expressed relief no one was harmed, including the firefighters.
“Our space was violated by white supremacists with the intention to scare and terrify us.”
“The building was a total loss, but it was not our full archive. Historic preservation efforts have been intense.”
The bulk of the center’s archives are in the hands of the Wisconsin Historical Society. “Some records are digitized and on people’s laptops, as well,” Henderson added. “It’s too early to confirm what we can salvage. We haven’t been cleared to do retrieval or cross the yellow barrier tape.”
The center has received an outpouring of offers to help with rebuilding ranging from fundraising to hammers and nails. The main office was one of 10 buildings.
While donations, as always, are welcome, Henderson insisted, “We don’t want to be opportunistic and fundraise off a tragedy.”
How can people help? “Share your Highlander stories, how your families and communities were impacted, how your life was different because you were connected with Highlander.”
July 31 marks the 60th anniversary of the nighttime raid that drove Highlander Folk School from its Monteagle home. “The lights were out. They were surrounded by law enforcement and white supremacists,” said Henderson recounting a story told to her by Candi Carawan, wife of Highlander School music director Guy Carawan. “A 13-year-old black girl there for a workshop spontaneously broke into song, singing ‘We are not afraid. We are not afraid today…’ The most powerful verse of the “We Shall Overcome” ballad was born in that moment.”
“We’ve received support and love from every corner of the planet in languages I can’t even read—Japan, the Philippines, Palestine, Kenya, South Africa—and from every state in Appalachia and most of the U.S.”
“Our mission is to build community and a world where everyone has what they need and deserve and is treated with dignity and respect. This is work we’re supposed to be doing. I’m more certain than ever.”