​Highlander Folk School Restoration

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
Restoration underway at one of Grundy County’s most important historical resources will soon make Highlander Folks School eligible for the National Registrar of Historic Places.
“Highlander Folk School is a ‘Who’s Who’ of civil rights movement leaders before they became legends,” said restoration project coordinator David Currey. Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash, and Martin Luther King Jr. all spent time at Highlander.
The question “Who is democracy for?” underscored Miles Horton’s founding the school in 1932. In the early days, Highlander focused on teaching local mountain people literacy and financial management skills and training them to unionize to lobby for better wages, job site safety, and a better standard of living. Highlander even offered a nursery school providing childcare while parents worked.
In 1954, Horton hired recent Highlander student Septima Clark to direct literacy workshops. The workshops expanded into citizenship training offered throughout the South. African-Americans not only learned the skills needed to pass literacy tests so they could vote.; they also learned about their rights as citizens.
Clark’s citizenship training evolved into Highlander’s focus on training for non-violent protest. In 1961, fearing the growing momentum of the Civil Rights movement, the state revoked Highlander’s charter, the first and only time in the state’s history a school’s charter has been revoked.
The state sold the property and buildings. The library, the primary structure, underwent significant alteration by subsequent owners. The alteration disqualified Highlander for recognition as a historic site.
A few years ago, Tennessee Preservation Trust (TPT) learned the property was again up for sale and decided to undertake the restoration challenge. Since 2013, TPT has acquired the library, several cabins, and most of the school property.
The library restoration requires removing an addition, replacing the roof, and reorienting entrance doors to their original 1950s location. The $1 million dollar project has attracted benefactors from Grundy County, Chattanooga and Nashville.
“We’re half way there,” Currey said. Major supporters include Carrington Montague and Greg Vital from Chattanooga, Nashville music industry icon Pam Lewis, and Grundy County’s Howell Adams.
The Gessell Trust funded by the estate of Sewanee social justice champion the Rev. Jack Gessell has assisted with financing property acquisition and removing the library addition.
Plans also call for cabin restoration, a walking trail, and a visitor and interpretive center. Currey estimates the final cost at $3-$4 million.
Other pro bono assistance has come from contractor Michael Lee who has significant preservation and restoration work experience. On three occasions Marine Corp and Army veterans have pitched in to help with clean up, erecting fences, and removing the library addition foundation.
When the state closed Highlander Folk School, the staff reincorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center now located in New Market, Tenn. The Center has addressed health and safety in the coalfields of Appalachia, environmental issues, and the negative impact of globalization.
“By restoring Highlander Folk School we’re helping to save the Center’s history,” Currey said.
Highlander founder Horton consulted with social reformer Jane Addams and modeled his program after Addam’s work addressing the plight of the immigrant and poor population in the Chicago area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Highlander is an important historical resource regardless of your politics,” Currey stressed. “Highlander reminds us of who we once were. We need to know who we were to know where we’re going.”
Donations can be made to Tennessee Preservation Trust, P.O. Box 24373, Nashville, TN 37202. Please note Highlander Restoration in the memo line. For more information, contact Curry at <historichighlander@tennesseepreservationtrust.org> or (615) 423-9249.
Curry will host a tour at 9 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 19. The Highlander Folk School site is located on 120 Old Highlander Ln., just off Highway 41 between Monteagle and Tracy City. A historical marker on Highway 41 assists visitors in finding the location.