Certain cities immediately spring to mind when discussing the civil rights movement – Memphis, Montgomery, Selma, Topeka and Little Rock, to name just a few. But the role Grundy County played in the struggle for racial equality, and specifically the Highlander Folk School that operated in Monteagle for decades, is often overlooked.
However, there are people, including Tracy City resident William Ray Turner, who remember it well. Turner, a virtual one-man Grundy County historical society, has collected thousands of photographs, newspapers, books and artifacts he houses in a museum he’s constructed next to his home. He credits the controversy surrounding the Highlander Folk School with sparking his interest in history when he was still a teenager.
The Highlander Folk School was founded by Myles Horton, Jim Dombrowski and Don West in 1932 in a building donated to the school by Lillian Johnson, a historical trailblazer in her own right. Johnson was the first woman to receive a doctorate degree from Cornell University, taught at Vassar College and the University of Tennessee and was instrumental in the founding of the Western State Teachers College for Women at Memphis. “Dr. Lillian Johnson offered her home to the school for a year to help the mountain people,” Turner said. “After a year, she was pleased with what the school was doing, so she donated the building.”
In its early years, the school focused its efforts on programs to improve the living conditions of area residents and educating workers, operating under the philosophy that progressive social change and training community members would forge the path for a more democratic society. The staff and supporters soon expanded that vision to include fighting segregation, holding integrated workshops as early as 1944. Many of the people who went on to become synonymous with the civil rights movement spent time at Highlander, including Rosa Parks, who took part in a desegregation workshop six months before she boarded that bus in Montgomery, Ala., and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who visited Monteagle in 1957, the same year he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and spoke before a crowd of 15,000 in Washington, D.C. Other high-profile supporters included musician and activist Pete Seeger and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who made headlines by writing a $100 check to the school.
While the Highlander Folk Schools efforts were appreciated by its benefactor and supporters, that sentiment was far from universal. Some in the community asserted that the Highlander Folk School was a communist training school, and formed a group called the Grundy County Crusaders determined to close down the school. Turner said those opposed to the school appealed to the authorities and elected officials for support, adding the school was the subject of investigations by Dies Committee (perhaps better known as the House Un-American Activities Committee), the FBI, the state of Tennessee and the Arkansas Attorney General. Turner said the opponents’ objections to the school intensified when Highlander got involved in the civil rights movement. While the activities at Highland Folk School were of great interest to the Grundy County Crusaders and their supporters, “regular poor people like me weren’t involved but business people and office holders were,” Turner said.
While the school’s activities had little impact on the everyday lives of “regular poor people,” Turner said the majority of people living in Grundy County at the time stayed away out of fear of being ostracized or maybe even targeted for ridicule. “You didn’t want to be involved there because you’d be called a communist or a pinko,” he said. “The average person wouldn’t go… To my way of thinking, if the Highland School had been given a chance, it could have helped people,” Turner said.
The school’s charter was revoked by the state in 1961 and its land and buildings were seized. The founders and supporters were undaunted. The school, renamed the Highlander Research and Education Center, moved its operations to Knoxville that year, where it remained until 1972 before finding its new, and current, home in New Market. Although the home that originally housed the Highlander Folk School burned years ago, the school has not been completely erased from the map of Grundy County. The building that once housed the library is currently on the market.
Although the Highlander Folk School may not have the name recognition of other landmarks from the civil rights movement, the seeds planted and plans laid in Monteagle have not gone unheralded. Earlier this month the Tennessee Human Rights Commission honored the Highlander Research and Education Center as one of its 50th Anniversary Civil Rights Advocate Award recipients.
“Highlander is thrilled and humbled to be the recipient of this award, and to be a small part of that history,” a statement on the center’s website reads, in part. “We celebrate the Tennessee Human Rights Commission its work for equality and we honor their work, and the work of all the others, who gave their time and their lives to change the South, who made it a place where awards like this could be given.”
More information on the Highlander Folk School can be found online at www.highlandercenter.org. William Ray Turner opens his museum to the public by appointment. Call 931-592-6557 to schedule a visit.
Andrea Agardy can be reached by email at email@example.com.