Jerry Summers: Highlander Folk School

Monday, September 16, 2019
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The most controversial institution of learning in the State of Tennessee has been the Highlander Folk School which was originally founded in 1932 in Grundy County by Myles Horton (1905-1990) and educator Don West on a 200-acre farm donated by women’s suffragist Lillian Johnson outside the mountain town of Monteagle.  

The original mission of the school was to educate “rural and industrial leaders for a new social order.”  The vagueness of said declaration would be expanded to several social causes over the years. 

Highlander was not a normal school of traditional higher learning.  Workshops ranging in duration from two days to eight weeks dealt with the important issues of the period. 

During the 1930s Highlander became heavily involved in the battles between organized labor and management in the Tennessee labor market.  The school was instrumental in organizing unions in the mining, textile, and timber mills in the area.  The school often worked in concert with national union organizations such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in an effort to break the non-unions atmosphere in the South.  The school conducted labor education programs with workers from 11 Southern states. 

Supporting unions led to allegations of “communism” by business leader’s fighting unionization.

When integration of the races at the workshops began at the school in 1934 on a limited basis, this led to fear of reprisals from the conservative local community and resistance from labor unions.  Full integration of the workshops took place in 1942.

During this period Highlander’s main focus was on labor education and the training of labor organizers.  In the 1950s Highlander turned its resources to the issues of civil rights, desegregation, and voter rights.  Particular emphasis was placed on helping blacks throughout the South to register to vote. 

The initial voting efforts were subsequently transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) because of opposition by the State of Tennessee which was investigating ways to close the school under intense pressure from segregationists. 

Civil rights leader Rosa Parks attended a two-week inter-racial conference in 1955 and returned to Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to give her seat on a bus to a white person, which led to the bus boycott that gave shape to the modern civil rights movement. 

Martin Luther King, Jr., also attended Highlander in 1957 and this helped propel him to regional prominence as the main national leader in the civil rights movement.  He attended the 25th Anniversary of the school and a photo was taken of King which was distributed throughout the South with claims that he was attending a communist training school. 

Other attendees during this period included former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt who made a financial contribution to the school. Undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agents were assigned to check on King, Horton, and others and to make a report to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.  Folk singer Pete Seeger also attended as did Andrew Young. 

The freedom anthem “We Shall Overcome” and other movement songs were adopted as part of the activities of Highlander and became the symbols of the civil rights movement. 

In 1961 political pressure by segregationists led to the State of Tennessee moving to close the school on charges of violating its tax exempt status charter and for selling liquor without a license for a profit.  In spite of noble efforts by Nashville attorney, George Barrett, in two unsuccessful appeals to the United States Supreme Court, Highlander’s charter was revoked and its property confiscated.  This was the first and only time in the state’s history that such action was taken against an educational institution. 

In 1961 Myles Horton moved the school to Knoxville where it was located until 1974 when it moved to its present location near New Market, Tn.  The name of the school was changed to Highlander Research and Education Center. 

On Sept. 22-24, 2017, an 85th Anniversary Celebration was held in New Market.
Throughout its existence Highlander has modified its teachings to address any current issues.  
After the civil rights movement in the 1950s-1960s it shifted its main emphasis to the issues of worker health and safety in the coalfield of Appalachia in the 1960s-1970s. 

In the 1980s-1990s it branched out into a broader base of dealing with the environment on a regional, national, and international levels.

In the 21st Century emphasis focused on a multitude of issues dealing with immigration, youth, poor while people, and LGBTs.

Myles Horton died in 1990 but remained involved with Highlander until his death. He is buried in a cemetery adjacent to the school’s original site in Monteagle.  To the end he strove for “equal social justice for everyone" irrespective of their race or economic status. 

In 2014, the Tennessee Preservation Trust placed Highlander’s surviving school buildings on the list of 10 “most endangered historical sites” in the state. 

In 2017 a group of students at the University of the South (Sewanee) studied the history of Highlander and conducted a series of public tours to educate a new generation of supporters for the school. 

In 2019 a restoration project is underway in an attempt to have the historic site become eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.  Donations can be made for the project to Tennessee Preservation Trust, PO Box 24373, Nashville, Tennessee, 37202 and should be noted in the memo line that it is for Highlander.  A website about the project has been set up by coordinator David Curry at historichighlander@tennesseepreservationtrust.org or call (615) 423-9249. 

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Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com



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