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.”