Currently known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Highlander Folk School is located in New Market, Tennessee. It is an institution that acts as a cultural center and specializes in leadership training for social justice, community organizing, and educating individuals on initiatives to better their lives. Its mission is to “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” (Williams and Beard 139 ). It emerged during the late 1920s when the southern rural poor were forgotten and excluded from the prosperity of the urban United States and thus the purview of American lawmakers and other leaders. With its populist roots, it has grown to encompass a growing list of modern issues but has maintained its base as an educational institution that focuses on the needs of ordinary Americans, which are not generally addressed by state or national elites.
Founded by Methodist minister James A. Dombrowski, educator Don West, and activist Myles Horton, the center was the brainchild of Horton, who was involved in a Presbyterian summer Bible school in Ozone, Tennessee, an area in the throes of economic collapse in the late 1920s. He saw almost no connection between the Bible school and the “daily problems faced either by the children or their hard-pressed parents. . . . I couldn't put this into words, but such education failed to connect with their lives” (Adams and Horton 2 ). He decided to invite the parents to church in the evenings to talk about their problems. During these “community meetings,” Horton tried to address their issues as best as he could or to connect the parents with someone who could help them. He then asked these mountain people to share their newfound knowledge with their neighbors. Over time he received reports on what advice was received well and what was not.
On November 1, 1932, Horton and his friends founded what would eventually become the Highlander Folk School in the town of Summerfield, located in Grundy County, Tennessee. Barely established, the school faced its first major challenge during the coal miners’ strike in the town of Wilder-Davidson in Fentress County. When he discovered that the Red Cross was only supplying food to the strikebreakers, Norton organized food drives in Nashville to feed the striking miners and their families. The National Guard promptly arrested him. Out of that experience he learned that “the tie-in with the conflict situations and participation in community life keeps our school from being a detached colony or utopian venture. . . . [O]ur efforts to live out our ideals makes possible the development of a bit of proletarian culture as an essential part of our program of workers’ education” (Jones). The Highlander Folk School's focus would be to teach, not to lead.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Highlander Folk School led community and union organizing drives and provided information about the government to unregistered and ill-informed voters. Spreading the populist message, after several victories, reversals, and defeats Horton and his colleagues decided to increase their efforts toward connecting education with unionization throughout the South. According to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) history of Tennessee (1939) , the school was “one of the few training schools for labor leaders in the South. In two small buildings, whose size helps to limit the student body to about 20, the school offers informal, discussion type lectures on cultural and economic subjects. . . . A year-around community and county program is carried on and members of the school attempt to preserve the culture of the mountain people” (Tennessee Writer's Project 512 ).
Throughout the 1940s, alumni from Highlander were involved in almost every major union effort in the South. Yet, in 1952, Horton believed that the school should change its focus toward the betterment of race relations, as racism seemed to be the major stumbling blocked to unionization in the region. With the addition of Rev. John Beauchamp Thompson, Highlander developed literacy programs to help blacks register to vote. The civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was adapted from a gospel song by Myles's wife, Zilphia Horton.
One year later, the school reincorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moved to Knoxville, where it stayed until 1971. Currently located in New Market, the center is focused on environmental justice movements, ethnic diversity, workers’ health and safety, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.
Trevor Jason Soderstrum
See also: Copland, Aaron (1900–1990) ; Pop Music ; Social Gospel ; Workingman's School
Adams, Frank, and Myles Horton. Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1975.
Jones, James B., Jr. “Myles F. Horton, Tennessee's ‘Radical Hillbilly’: The Highlander Folk School and Education for Social Change in America, the South, and the Volunteer State.” http://www.southernhistory.net/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=10263. Accessed January 4, 2013.
Tennessee Writers’ Project. Tennessee: A Guide to the State. Chattanooga, TN: Hastings House, 1949.
Williams, Horace Randall, and Ben Beard. This Day in Civil Rights History. Montgomery, AL: New South Books, 2009.