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Highlander Folk School

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Title: Highlander Folk School  
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Subject: Pete Seeger, Monteagle, Tennessee, Alan Lomax, Roger Waters, List of civil rights leaders, Guy Carawan, We Shall Overcome, Eric Wolf, Hidden curriculum, Myles Horton
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Highlander Folk School

The Highlander Research and Education Center, formerly known as the Highlander Folk School, is a social justice leadership training school and cultural center located in New Market, Tennessee. Founded in 1932 by activist Myles Horton, educator Don West, and Methodist minister James A. Dombrowski, it was originally located in the community Summerfield in Grundy County, Tennessee, between Monteagle and Tracy City. It was featured in the 1985 documentary film You Got to Move.

Highlander has provided training and education for the labor movement in Appalachia and throughout the Southern United States. During the 1950s, it played a critical role in the American Civil Rights Movement. It trained civil rights leader Rosa Parks prior to her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as providing training for many other movement activists including the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Septima Clark, Anne Braden, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Rosa Parks, Hollis Watkins, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis in the mid- and-late 1950s. Backlash against the school's involvement with the Civil Rights Movement led to the school's closure by the state of Tennessee in 1961. It reorganized and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where it reopened, later becoming the Highlander Research and Education Center.


Early years

The Highlander Folk School was originally established in Grundy County, Tennessee. When Highlander was founded in 1932, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Workers in all parts of the country were met with major resistance by employers when they tried to organize labor unions, especially in the South. Against that backdrop, Horton, West and Dombrowski created the Highlander School "to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains." Horton was influenced by observing rural adult education schools in Denmark started in the 19th century by Danish Lutheran Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig.[1]

During the 1930s and 1940s, the school's main focus was labor education and the training of labor organizers.

Civil rights

In the 1950s, Highlander turned its energies to the rising issues of civil rights and desegregation. In addition to Myles Horton and others, a key figure during this period was John Beauchamp Thompson, a minister and educator who became one of the principal fund-raisers and speakers for the school. Highlander worked with Esau Jenkins of Johns Island to develop a literacy program for Blacks who were prevented from registering to vote by literacy requirements. The Citizenship Education Schools coordinated by Septima Clark with assistance from Bernice Robinson spread widely throughout the South and helped thousands of Blacks register to vote. Later the program was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because the state of Tennessee was threatening to close the school down.

The civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" was adapted (from a gospel song) by Highlander music director Zilphia Horton, wife of Myles Horton, from the singing of striking tobacco factory workers in South Carolina in 1946, and shortly afterward was published by folksinger Pete Seeger in the People's Songs bulletin. It was revived at Highlander by Guy Carawan, who succeeded Zilphia Horton as Highlander's music director in 1959. Guy Carawan taught the song to SNCC at their first convening at Shaw University. The song has since spread and become one of the most recognizable movement songs in the world.


In reaction to the work done by the school, during the late 1950s, Southern newspapers attacked Highlander for supposedly creating racial strife. In 1957, the Georgia Commission on Education published a pamphlet titled "Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tennessee".[2] A controversial photograph, supposedly of Martin Luther King and writer, trade union organizer, civil rights activist and co-founder of the Highlander School Donald Lee West, was published, along with a claim that it was taken at the school. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, West was the District Director of the Communist Party in North Carolina,[3] though West denied he had ever been a member of the Communist Party.[4] Finally, in 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander's charter and confiscated and auctioned its land and property.[5] According to Septima Clark's autobiography, Echo In My Soul (page 225), the Highlander Folk School was closed because it violated its charter by engaging in commercial activities. The Highlander Folk School was chartered in the State of Tennessee as a non-profit corporation without stockholders or owners, so once it lost its charter no one could make a claim on any of the property. Later in 1961, the Highlander staff reincorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moved to Knoxville, where it stayed until 1971. Then it relocated to its current location in New Market, Tennessee.

Appalachian issues

In the 1960s and 1970s, Highlander began to focus on worker health and safety in the coalfields of Appalachia. Its leaders played a role in the emergence of the region's environmental justice movement. It helped start the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training (SALT) program, and coordinated a survey of land ownership in Appalachia. In the 1980s and 1990s, Highlander broadened from that base into broader regional, national, and international environmentalism; struggles against the negative effects of globalization; grassroots leadership development in under-resourced communities; and beginning in the 1990s, an involvement in LGBT issues, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Since 2000

Current focuses of Highlander include issues of democratic participation and economic justice, with a particular focus on youth, immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America, African Americans, LGBT, and poor white people.


The directors of Highlander have been:

  • Myles Horton, 1932–1969
  • Frank Adams, 1970–1973
  • Mike Clark, 1973–1978
  • Helen Matthews Lewis, 1978–79 (acting)
  • Mike Clark, 1979–1984
  • Hubert E. Sapp, 1984–1993
  • John Gaventa, 1993–1996
  • Jim Sessions, 1996–1999
  • Suzanne Pharr, 1999–2003
  • Mónica Hernández and Tami Newman, interim co-directors 2004–2005
  • Pam McMichael, interim director, 2005; director from 2006

See also

  • May Justus



  • John M. Glen, Highlander: No Ordinary School, 1932-1962. The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. ISBN 0-8131-1617-1
  • files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act
  • Frank Adams, with Myles Horton, Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. John F. Blair: 1975. ISBN 0-89587-019-3
  • Jeff Biggers, "The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America". Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard. ISBN ISBN 1-59376-151-1 ISBN 978-1593761516
  • Myles Horton, with Herbert and Judith Kohl, The Long Haul: An Autobiography. Teachers College Press: 1997. ISBN 0-8077-3700-3
  • Myles Horton and Paulo Friere, We Make the Road by Walking. Temple University Press: 1990. ISBN 0-87722-775-6
  • History - 1930-1953: Beginnings & The Labor Years
  • Highlander Folk School
  • Highlander Research and Education Center
  • Pam McMichael, "Dear Friend of Highlander", Highlander Reports, April 2005, (PDF)
  • Eliot Wigginton, ed., Refuse to Stand Silently By: An Oral History of Grass Roots Social Activism in America, 1921-1964. Doubleday, 1991. ISBN 0-385-17572-8

External links

  • Highlander Center official web site
  • Highlander Research and Education Center Records, 1917-1978 at the Wisconsin Historical Society--Over 350,000 documents and 1800 audio recordings from the Highlander Folk School
  • Digital Library of Georgia
  • Myles F. Horton, Tennessee's "Radical Hillbilly": The Highlander Folk School and Education for Social Change in America, the South, and the Volunteer State By James B. Jones, Jr. Southern History Net website.

"You Got to Move", a 1985 Documentary on the Highlander School by Lucy Phenix and Veronica Selver has good footage of Myles Horton and many school attendees.

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