Monday, July 30, 2012

HIGHLANDER FOLK SCHOOL

Last week, we hosted dinner for Henry and Kathy Hamman, owners of Plateau Press here on the Mountain in honor of a visit from Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, professor of English, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. After dinner, we enjoyed a lively discussion about a school on the Cumberland Plateau that I had never heard mentioned during the five years I’ve spent at Sewanee. The Highlander Folk School, once located between Monteagle and Tracy City, Tennessee, not more then ten miles away, no longer functions but it has evolved into the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee.
Henry informed us that we could still see the old Highlander Folk School structure in Grundy County, so the next day we went on a field trip to search for one of our regional historic sites. We located the plaque commemorating the school but never found the old structure. However, some time in the near future the Hammans have promised to take us to the location of the school that was established to “provide training for rural and industrial leaders and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains.”
The Highlander Folk School was an amazing venture established in 1932 by Myles Horton, an activist; Don West, an educator; and James A. Dombrowski, a Methodist minister. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, the school focused on labor education and the training of labor organizers, but the staff later developed a literacy program for Blacks who couldn’t vote because they were illiterate. This program at Highlander Folk School later transferred to the Southern Christian School because the State of Tennessee threatened to close the Highlander’s doors.
The school played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement and such notable leaders as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Septima Clark, visited the school and were involved in its trainings. During the 1950’s, southern newspapers attacked the Highlander Folk School, accusing its staff of causing racial strife. The State of Tennessee forced the school to close its doors in 1961 after moonshine mysteriously appeared on its property, and the staff was falsely accused of being a communist training center.
An interesting account about the attacks on the Highlander Folk School by white supremacists appeared in 2003 in a senior thesis by Laura Grantmyre. It detailed white supremacist responses to anti-racist activities. The thesis reveals how white supremacy is interwoven with systems of gender and is embedded in certain cultures. “Charges of communism, atheism, and interracial immorality were used by white political elite of the South in their attacks,” Grantmyre wrote.
The Highlander Folk School closed its doors and moved to New Market following the adverse reaction to its mission, and during the 1960’s and 1970’s, it focused on worker health and safety in the coalfields of Appalachia and helped initiate the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training Program.
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the notables who visited the school in its infancy, became interested in the Highlander Folk School’s objectives related to economic justice and equality. We look forward to the search for the site of a school that addressed issues of national and international importance – once located approximately eight miles away in a small rural community near Sewanee, Tennessee. 
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