As part of Sewanee’s new “Finding Your Place” program for freshmen, my students and I today went to the nearby site of the Highlander Folk School, the populist educational facility founded by Myles Horton in 1932 that helped to midwife the Civil Rights movement. Highlander was chased out of Grundy County in the 60’s on what are apparently trumped-up charges, but not before luminaries such as Pete Seeger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr., had been there. The school re-opened in the Knoxville area, and has since then continued to do significant work on the environment and voters’ rights issues. But what of the facility in Monteagle, only a few scant miles from my home?
Truth be told, this site so important in the battle for Civil Rights had been all but forgotten locally. While I knew the name of Highlander, it didn’t really ring any bells for me, a situation not all that uncommon among most of my friends in Sewanee. Some of the buildings in which Horton’s school had been located had burnt down, while others had been substantially re-modelled by subsequent owners. “There’s nothing worth seeing there anymore,” I had been told.
In putting together this new course about place, however, I began to realize what a critical role Highlander had played in an important chapter of Southern–indeed American–history, and my desire grew to see what was there, regardless of whether it was “worth” seeing. In order to prepare my students for the visit, I had them watch the filmmaker Lucy Massie Phenix’s documentary about Highlander, You Got to Move, which features marvelous footage of Horton and the children’s author May Justus defending the school from its bigoted detractors, as well as interviews with inspirational characters like the singer and protester, Bernice Johnson Reagon.
As it happens, an article by my friend Michael Cass entitled, “TN preservationists are out to save training ground of Rosa Parks, other activists” appeared in the Tennessean last week. The Tennessee Preservation Trust, it turns out, has been actively engaged in raising funds to purchase the property, not only to restore it to its former condition but also to turn it back into an education center. According to the article, David Currey, the Trust’s director,
believes returning Highlander to the way it looked in 1961 would be well worth the trouble.
“This place has the potential,” he said, “to tell a story that hasn’t been told.”
In the days following the article’s appearance, it came to pass that a deal had been successfully brokered that would allow the Trust and others to acquire the property, so long as funding could be secured. And so, through a friend, I got in touch with Ray Banks, the realtor whose agency had been involved in the proceedings, and when he heard that I wanted to bring a group of Sewanee students over to look at the Highlander property, he was eager to help us out. “When do you want to come? Monday at 1? I’ll meet you on the front steps of the old library.”
We showed up today, my students and I, and sat on the floor of the old library building. Ray explained its unique history to my students. It was in this very room that Rosa Parks had trained before refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery. We marveled to think that we were in the very spot where Martin Luther King heard “We Shall Overcome” for the very first time. “There’s something about that song that haunts you,” he told a friend as they left Monteagle, and from there, it became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
Ray told us that there were plans afoot for Bruce Springsteen to put on a benefit concert. The rain picked up outside, but some of us decided to walk around the grounds, while a few others stayed in to play on the ping-pong table. Most of the students took out their journals and spent time reflecting on the afternoon. Later, I took out my iPhone and, punching up Pete Seeger on Youtube, held it up for the students to hear. Later in the afternoon, a friend sent me a link to a recent article about two protesting firemen in Madison, Wisconsin, being arrested for singing “We Shall Overcome.” And I was reminded of what Myles Horton told the police who had come to close down the Highlander Folk School, over fifty years ago. “You can padlock a building,” he said, “but you can’t padlock an idea.”
Thank-you for reminder of this great community education site, a free university. Miles Horton really was amazing educational visionary.
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to tour the grounds and library with Scott Bates, who, as you know, has been actively involved with Highlander since coming to Sewanee as a young professor. As a teenager in Birmingham, I was a folkie with a guitar and a subscription to that “subversive” folk music magazine, Sing Out! I knew about Highlander even then. I remember some of those signs along the highway condemning the place. I was so happy to see the site and sit in that library. It was as if the music of justice could still be heard vibrating in the wood.
Completely agree about the music being still audible in the wood. Some of the finish on the wood ceiling dates to the 50’s, and has visible hand-prints in it!
Why didn’t I take a picture?! Regrets …
Love the juxtaposition of photos new and old. Nothing worth seeing? Pshaw!
It was exciting to stand in that space, I have to say. Next time you’re here, let’s go over!
As a first-semester freshman at Sewanee in 1958-59 I took a French conversation course from Scott Bates, and like a lot of his students I learned about the Highlander Folk School through him. In the spring or autumn of 1959, I forget which, many of us drove down to a tiny town near Monteagle to the hearings at which some Tennessee lawmakers tried, unsuccessfully, to “prove” that Highlander was a breeding-ground of anti-American Communism. I’ve never forgotten that experience, and am certain that it awakened me to the “left” side of American life at a time when I didn’t know such a thing existed.
William, thank you for sharing these thoughts. I’d love to hear your further thoughts. I recently had a good conversation with Richard Tillinghast about those days.
Richard Tillinghast and I were suite mates in our first semester at Sewanee. Small world!
Maybe you know his long poem, “Sewanee When We Were Young” about those years?
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My father bought the office building at Highlander Folk School after the property was seized and sold at auction about 1960…I was a kid, then, and never aware of the historical significance of this property. Spent many a lazy day floating on a raft on that lake. Would that I was back there with my present knowledge and could listen to those breezes.
Many thanks for your recollections, Barbara. It’s still such a lovely place, and I’m glad that there will be a preservation effort.
When I was growing up my dad took me to Highlander many times. After I grew up I visited Highlander often. I am 81 years old now and for many years my family and I visited Highlander at their homecomings.
I am incredibly interested in the Highlander Folk School and would love to visit inside. Do you know if this still possible? I believe it was sold to a TN preservation group? I have driven by, not sure if I was “allowed” to walk around, but even driving by, I have always felt like I was on hallowed ground.
Hi Amanda– You might want to have a look here: http://www.sewanee.edu/newstoday/top-stories-homepage/highlander-folk-school-tours.php
So timely! Thank you so much!
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Those who don’t know about Highlander should and this tells the story well. It should not be forgotten or go unnoticed. Your post does all those of us who know about Highlander a service.
Steve, Thank you for your kind words. It’s an inspirational place, to be sure.
Thank you, Steve, for your kind words. It is an inspirational pl
Do you know who is in that black and white photo? Could May Justus be the white woman? I’ve done lots of research on Justus and I’m updating my bibliography and article on her in my web site. I can’t find your name anywhere but I enjoyed this article.
Dear Tina– My apologies for the delayed reponse! I am not sure if that is May Justus or not. She did live close by. I would ask the good folks at the Grundy County Historical Society, who know a great deal about Justus and Highlander. http://grundycountyhistoricalsociety.com/