Historic Highlander

When it opens in August 2022, the Highlander Folk School Library building, located just east of Monteagle, will serve as a premier historic site that gives visitors the opportunity to explore the story of the organized labor and Civil Rights movements in the South, as well as the power of music to inspire and bring people together.

In 1932, Myles Horton, Don West, and Jim Dombrowski established the Highlander Folk School in the midst of economic collapse during the Great Depression. Their vision for social justice included adult workshops for the region’s miners, timber workers, and other exploited laborers to help them overcome their lack of education and to organize against low wages and poor living conditions. As Horton noted, however, “Our talk about brotherhood and democracy…was irrelevant to people in 1932. They were hungry. Their problems had to do with how to get some food in their bellies and how to get a doctor.”

In the 1940s Highlander’s mission coalesced around education workshops for industrial workers. In Monteagle, they trained beleaguered laborers to unionize, called for the desegregation of national unions, and educated Appalachian mining families on how to fight against the abuse of coal companies. Though energetic, the school failed to alter the balance of power in the region. Social justice programs gained little traction.

Almost from the start, education workshops at Highlander included music programs. Beginning in the mid-1930s Myles Horton’s wife, Zilphia, conducted music workshops for union workers. Her efforts attracted iconic folksingers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Zilphia also created, rearranged, and catalogued protest songs. One song in particular, however, transcended all others. In 1945, black members of the Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural Workers Union from Charleston, South Carolina brought to Highlander a revised version of an old slave spiritual, “I’ll be all right someday.” Zilphia later introduced the tune to Peter Seeger, who made several changes, including rewriting the verse “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome.” In the 1960s, the song became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so moved that he recited the lyrics in his final Memphis sermon before his assassination in 1968, and “We Shall Overcome” was played during his Atlanta funeral.

After World War II advocates for social change used the American victory over fascism as a catalyst to combat segregation in the South. On the heels of the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, Highlander’s attention turned toward community leadership training and non-violence workshops for early movement activists. The school was one of the few places in the South where integrated adult education meetings were held. In 1955, Rosa Parks attended Highlander workshops on non-violence in the months prior to the Montgomery bus boycott. When later asked what the school meant to her, she answered, “everything.”

That same year, Highlander helped establish Citizenship Schools in Georgia, Alabama, and West Tennessee where African American adults in need were taught basic literacy skills, including the knowledge necessary to register to vote. These schools were Highlander’s most important Civil Rights-era program. Their success, however, brought scorn, retribution, and eventually closure and confiscation of the campus by the State of Tennessee.

Between 1954 and 1960 Highlander continued to attract supporters, both white and black. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, baseball great Jackie Robinson, actor Harry Belafonte, and Martin Luther King, Jr. became admirers. Roosevelt, along with King, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and Pete Seeger attended the school’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1957. Highlander was quickly recognized as a leader in developing Civil Rights activists and in voter registration. Workshops attracted activists from across the South, including young college students. Marion Barry, James Lawson, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, and James Bevel all came to Highlander. Andrew Young, at the behest of King, also visited the school. As John Lewis remembered, “This school played a major role in shaping the future of the South and maybe the future of the nation. It gave us the tools, the techniques, and the tactics to redeem the soul of America.”

Following unsubstantiated accusations by investigators, a police raid, false assumptions, and two dramatic courtroom trials, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter and confiscated the Grundy County property in 1962, all in retaliation for their involvement and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. The school relocated to Knoxville and then to New Market, Tennessee, where they carry on the work of the Highlander Folk School as the Highlander Research and Education Center.

For many years after the Summerfield campus closed, only an historic marker on Hwy. 41 identified the site. However, in 2014, the Tennessee Preservation Trust purchased the Highlander Folk School library building, along with eight additional acres from the original campus, and restored the structure to its appearance at the height of the schools’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s.

David Currey, TPT director for the Highlander Library building restoration project, is partnering with Todd Mayo, owner of The Caverns in nearby Pelham, to reclaim the property for use as a premier historic Civil Rights venue, music education facility, and tourist destination for Tennessee’s South Cumberland region.

Visitors can enjoy exhibits on the history of social justice movements in the South, learn about the agricultural school that existed at Summerfield before Highlander, explore the Highlander library building, and experience the power that music played and continues to play in inspiring cooperation and change.

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