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New Life for Highlander Folk School

Posted on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at 9:41 am

highlander folk school

New life for Highlander Folk School

Fifty-three years after the state of Tennessee seized property belonging to Highlander Folk School little remains of the retreat that was inspirational in the fight for civil rights. However, a Nashville based historic preservation group has been quietly working to purchase the original Highlander site and hopefully restore it to its historical condition.

On May 14, the Tennessee Preservation Trust (TPT) took ownership of 4.2 acres of land at the original Highlander Folk School location between Monteagle and Tracy City. The purchase includes the Highlander library and two other buildings. Unfortunately, the main building that housed the school was destroyed in a fire years ago.

“It is our intention to piece this back together as a historic site for education and tourism,” stated TPT chairman, David Currey.

Miles Horton established Highlander Folk School on 200 acres in 1932. His goal was to create a school that would help poor Southerners confront the forces that oppressed them. Early actions saw the students and staff involved in Wilder Coal Strike in Wilder, Tennessee and the founding of Citizenship Schools along the South Carolina coast.

Horton and the Highlander board of directors changed their focus in the early 1950s, turning their attention to racial segregation. Many civil rights luminaries found their way to the mountain to participate at the school. In 1955, Rosa Parks, a tailor’s assistant from Montgomery, Alabama, attended Highlander for a two week seminar and returned home with a “strengthened confidence”. Six months later, in December of 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white person. This exchange set off what would become known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a movement that gave impetus to the modern civil rights and propelled Martin Luther King, Jr. to prominence.

In addition to Parks, Andrew Young, Septima Clark, singer and songwriter Pete Seeger, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. all play a part in the history of Highlander. The interaction of blacks and whites at the school and the accusations that the school was a communist training ground led to complaints from local residents and to state and federal investigations. Prosecutors, looking to shut down the school, were finally able to lock the doors in 1961 on false charges of selling alcohol without a license.

“This is one of the first places you see African-Americans and whites congregating to talk about social issues in a segregated South, to talk about the meaning of American democracy in the mid-20th century and give voice to the community of poor whites and blacks in the region,” said Currey. “Getting this piece of property will allow the story of Highlander to be told in its original setting.”

TPT will assess the property and move on to the next step – developing a capital campaign to restore the Highlander as a center of learning and education.