Fifty Years With Highlander
By Sue Thrasher
Vol. 4, No. 6, 1982, pp. 4-9
At Christmas time in 1931 in Copenhagen, Denmark, a young man off an East Tennessee farm made a note to himself:
I can’t sleep but there are dreams: a school where young men and women can come and he inspired . . . expressing themselves through teaching history, literature, song and music, arts, weaving, and a life lived together. .. A school where young men and women living in close personal contact with teachers will learn how to take their place intelligently in a changing world, which at present presents so many baffling problems. It its hoped that the students will he able to make decisions for themselves on the basis of an enlightened judgment.
Myles Horton returned from Denmark and in November of 19832, he started his Southern mountain school soon named the Highlander Folk School. This year, the celebration of the Highlander Research and Education Center’s fiftieth anniversary prompts an overview of its three major periods of work: the Southern labor movement of the 1930’s and 40’s, the civil rights movement, and the struggle for Appalachian self-determination. The fiftieth anniversary also offers an opportunity to reflect upon Highlander’s impact as a regional institution and to ponder its role over the coming few years.
Myles Horton’s dream did not start in Copenhagen in 1931, but much earlier in the town of Ozone on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. While a student at Cumberland College, Myles had been teaching Vacation Bible School for the Presbyterian Church. The third summer of teaching he arrived in Ozone and decided to
try an experiment–getting adults together as well as the children.
In evening discussions at the church the adults would talk about their community. He was amazed at the response he got. Some of the people walked miles to the meetings. They wanted to know how to test wells for typhoid or hor to test their farmland. They also wanted to know about the possibility of getting jobs in textile mills.
One of the things Myles learned from these meetings was to trust his own ability as a group leader who didn’t have all of the answers. As he said later,
To my amazement my inability to answer questions didn’t bother them. That was probably the biggest discovery I ever made. You don’t have to know the answers! You raise the questions, sharpen the questions, get people to discussing them. We found that in that group of mountain people a lot of the answers were available if they pooled their knowledge.
That discovery triggered in Myles Horton the notion of a Southern mountain school. First, however, he returned to graduate from Cumberland University. After spending a year working with the YMCA in Tennessee, in 1929 he followed his dream to Union Seminary where he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and Harry F. Ward. He then went on to the University of Chicago to study with sociologist Robert Park. More importantly, Myles met a Danish minister named Aage Moller who told him about the Danish folk high school movement. At the end of his year in Chicago, and still not ready to “begin” his new school, Horton decided to travel to Denmark to see firsthand the Danish folks schools.
During all of this time Myles wrote innumerable notes to himself. He was never quite sure exactly when it was time to begin. From Union he had gone to Chicago, thinking that he still needed to know more, but his uncertainty after a year there had prompted him to search for more answers in Denmark. But, he still didn’t have all the answers. Finally one night in Denmark, he decided it was time to come home and find himself a situation and a place. As he wrote later,
All at once I told myself, “All you do is get a place and move in. You are there. The situation its there. You start with this and let it grow. You have your idea; you know your goal. It will build its own structure and take its own form. Find the place, the people, the situation. Use your ideas as your lodestone and move into the thing and start.”
With the help of Reinhold Niebuhr, Myles began making plans to start his school for adults. Niebuhr signed the school’s first fundraising letter which was perhaps more specific than Horton himself would have stated it: “Our project is the organization of a southern mountain school for the training of labor leaders in southern industrial areas.”
Will Alexander, Director of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in Atlanta, encouraged Myles to contact a young man named Don West, who also had the notion of starting a folk school. He met Don at the Blue Ridge Assembly in North Carolina and the two of them agreed to start this venture together.
From a friend Myles fondly remembers as Preacher Nightingale of Crossville, Tennessee, they learned about Dr. Lillian Johnson, an educator, who owned a home and property in the small community of Summerfield, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau. Disappointed by her own efforts at cooperative-building, she agreed to turn her property and her house over to them for one year, to try this experimental school. A graduate of Wellesley, and former President of Western College for Women, Dr. Johnson had moved to Summerfield to establish a community school, but her plans of using the school as the focal point of cooperative efforts had not succeeded and she was anxious to see what the two young men could do with their notion of a folk school.
The place that Myles and Don found themselves in the fall of 1932 was Grundy County, one of the ten poorest counties in the United States at the time. the situation they found themselves in was one of desperate poverty. Grundy County had once been rich in coal and timber but as Aimee Horton says in her dissertation on Highlander:
Those resources were exploited in classic 19th century style, and the economy there had begun to collapse decades before the depression. The only thing left in Grundy County at the time was cut-over timber, mined-out fields, and unemployed workers.
Most of the people had turned to farming for a living–subsistence farming–they were desperately poor.
The first phase of Highlander’s work began to center around Grundy County and the small community of Summerfield. During the first three years that they were there, the Highlander staff helped establish a union for WPA workers and a community cannery. Mom Horton, Myles’ mother, helped set up a quilting cooperative. Later staff members helped establish a community nursery school. At the same time, however, the staff was beginning to look towards regional issues. Myles had
never intended that Highlander be just a community school.
* * * *
By the time the CIO was formed in 1936, Highlander was in the thick of labor education. Myles helped select many of the Southern CIO organizers. And from then until the late 1940’s, Highlander was predominantly a labor school working very closely with the CIO and with some of the AFL unions. Unions from across the South sent members to Highlander to be trained in sessions ranging from one week to five weeks. Workers learned to put out a local union newspaper, to speak in public and to produce leaflets. They participated in courses on labor history, the history of social change and economics. Sessions were taught by Highlander staff members and by CIO and other union officials in the South.
By the late 1940’s however, Highlander’s role as a labor school was headed for an end. At issue was its relationship with unions who had been kicked out of the CIO for refusing to sign the anticommunist oath called for by the Taft-Hartley Act. More fundamental was the question of the independence of the school–whether it would be run by the CIO or whether it would maintain itself as an independent institution. The papers of Highlander for this particular period show how hard it fought to work with the unions, battling on the issue of race, subsidizing many of the union sessions–while also striving (naively in retrospect) for union support of the school.
Highlander did not espouse any particular ideology nor did it refuse to work with anyone because of ideology. Highlander did not apply a loyalty test to people who came to the school. At the same time. it had been very careful not to align with the Socialist Party, from which many of its early staff members had come. However, as political debate heated up within the unions, especially over the anti-communist provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, political debate heated up around Highlander. By 1949, it was apparent to both the CIO and Highlander that the uneasy truce that had existed for the past few years could no longer go one. The CIO did not attack Highlander, it simply dropped it from its list of approved institutions to hold its schools.
One of the most controversial issues, one that continued to arise throughout Highlander’s period of working with the unions, was the matter of race. Although Highlander had had a policy of being an integrated institution from the time it opened in 1932, the unions had been very reluctant to actually sponsor integrated schools. It was not until 1944, when the United Auto Workers held an integrated session at the school, that a residential session involved both black and white members. Eating at a table together, sleeping in the same dormitory rooms, using the same bathrooms were very emotional subjects during this time. Some of the members went away feeling that they had been changed by their living experience while at Highlander, but others were not convinced about a place that openly condoned white and black living–and especially one that had as many “Yankee” visitors.
Its union experience forced the Highlander staff to think more clearly about the issue of race and its meaning for the future of the South. This was one of the turning points in Highlander’s history.
* * * *
In the early 1950’s Highlander hosted small meetings to talk about the coming of school integration in the South. It was quite apparent to the staff and others who were concerned about social issues during that time, that a Supreme Court decision on school desegration would be handed down by the Warren Court.
In the summer of 1953, Highlander held three meetings on the issue of school desegregation. Community leaders came from across the South. Neither the staff nor the people they invited there knew exactly what would happen when people got there.
Here it is critical to understand Highlander’s role as an educational institution for developing leadership. Rather than go into communities and organize around a particular issue, Highlander’s goal was to pull out, train and help develop leaders from communities. This is seen most clearly in the civil rights period when people from across the South came to the residential setting of Highlander, talked about the issues at hand and then returned to their communities.
For fifteen years Highlander played an integral role in the civil rights movement. Until the passage of the first civil rights bill in 1964, it remained one of the few places available for interracial meetings. From tentative efforts with community leaders on school desegregation, the school moved to establish a major literacy and voting
rights project in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, held workshops with students participating in the sit-in movement, actively participated in the training of civil rights workers for Freedom Summer of 1964, and continued following up on all of these efforts until the time of the Poor Peoples March in Washington in 1967.
* * * *
From its early days in 1932, Highlander had enjoyed a warm relationship with the surrounding community of Grundy County. Square dances held at the school, volleyball games, and community suppers were commonplace. In addition, Highlander operated a community nursery school, first organized by Claudia Lewis, who later wrote about her experiences in a book entitled Children of the Cumberlands. She was followed by Joie Willimetz, a graduate of Wellesley, who used her own personal contracts to raise money and supplies for the school. The Folk School also published a small community newsletter called the Summerfield News, the work of an Antioch student, Elaine Van Brink, who spent four years at Highlander. She toured the community on her bicycle gathering news for the paper, typed and mimeographed it at Highlander, then later distributed it with the help of local newsboys and girls. The newsletter featured poetry, community news items, and a gossip column.
Despite indications of good reciprocal community relations, however, there was always some opposition t o the school and its ideas. In the early 1940’s Highlander had come under attack by a local group called The Grundy County Crusaders, who had threatened to march on the school. Residents of the area who liked the school simply ringed the area, and no harm was done.
As Highlander made the crucial turn toward involvement in the civil rights movement, and its students were drawn from predominantly black communities, the Folk School lost its strong community ties. It was not the antagonism of the local community however, that succeeded eventually in closing the school, but the antagonism of the state.
In 1957, Highlander held its twenty-fifth anniversary.
One of its major speakers that year was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King had just finished a year of leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott and had recently moved to Atlanta to help set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The governor of Georgia, Marvin Griffin, wanted to discredit King, and the state legislature of Tennessee wanted to discredit Highlander. When Dr. King spoke at Highlander, Governor Griffin sent a reporter and a photographer. A few months later a four page tabloid began circulating about the “communist training school in East Tennessee where Martin Luther King had been.” There were two billboards across the South during that time–“Martin Luther King at Communist Training School” and “Impeach Earl Warren.”
In 1959, Highlander was raided during a weekend workshop, two staff members were carted off to jail, and several counts were leveled against the school: operating a school for the profit of the director, selling beer without a license, and operating an integrated school. Selling beer without a license was the technicality that closed the school.
It took two years, until 1961, for the state of Tennessee to actually shut Highlander. Finally, the state confiscated and sold at auction approximately two hundred acres of land and several buildings, including a nursery, a community building, a library and staff houses. To this day, Highlander has never received any remuneration.
As soon as they could, the staff rechartered, reorganized and opened again under the name of the Highlander Research and Education Center.
* * * *
Through its participation in the 1967 Poor Peoples’ March on Washington and in Resurrection City, the encampment of poor people on the Mall, Highlander began another major shift of emphasis. Many people who gathered in Washington that summer believed that there was a possibility of realizing King’s dream of a multiracial poor peoples’ coalition. Several groups at Resurrection City encouraged Highlander to come back home and work in the Appalachian coalfields. Already it had begun making contacts in the mountains and had established strong ties with urban Appalachian groups such as the JOIN Community Union in uptown Chicago.
Highlander did come back to the mountains and began working more intensely with strands of a developing poor peoples’ movement in the Appalachians; included were anti-stripmine activists and various community action groups that were aided and abetted by the OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity) language calling for one-third representation of the poor. The staff during this time changed dramatically. It was much younger and more reflective of its new constituency.
The Appalachian period of Highlander is more difficult to categorize than the labor or civil rights periods. Even though there were very active groups in the
mountains throughout this time, the movement in Appalachia never developed into the kind of mass mobilization that the Highlander staff hoped for. Perhaps, in order to succeed, it would have had to emerge with a mass movement of poor people from all over the country. On the other hand, perhaps Highlander attempted to expand too quickly during the late 1960’s, as it established a Highlander-West to work with Chicanos in the Southwest and set up extension programs in the uptown area of Chicago.
In 1971, urban renewed out of Knoxville, the school moved physically back to the mountains. It is located now near New Market, Tennessee on a 110 acre farm overlooking the Smokes. The Appalachian emphasis has evolved into current projects: a health program which works with clinics in the mountains and with the providers of basic human services; a resource and education center established in 1976; and a cultural program. More recently Highlander has developed a labor education program which came from work with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and the United Furniture Workers Union.
* * * *
Highlander started out as a Southern/Mountain school and during its fifty year history it has been both of those things. The term Appalachian was not in vogue in 1932 when Myles and Don settled on the Cumberland Plateau, but Highlander was a well-known term, thus the Highlander Folk School. During its first two decades, Highlander worked with people from the mountains and with people from other parts of the South.
The school’s identification during those early years was much like the Cumberland Plateau where it was located — perched both figuratively and literally between the coalfields to the north and the agricultural regions to the south. Until the early 1950’s it was able to maintain itself successfully as both a Southern school and a Mountain school. During the period of the civil rights movement, however, Highlander became almost totally a Southern institution. Then during the late 1960’s and early 70’s it became a strictly Appalachian institute.
Much of Highlander’s work in the coalfields reflected the assumption that Appalachia is a colony. Currently Highlander is in still another stage of development and thinking about its region and about other regions. The distinctiveness of both the Appalachian coalfields and the South has eroded as they have both become more Americanized. The fact that each remains a colony–wealth from their natural resources is spirited away to absentee owners–makes them in one sense no more distinctive than the Indian lands of the Southwest or any of the Latin American, African or Asian nations plundered for their natural and human resources by trans-national corporations.
For the last five years, Highlander has neither called itself an Appalachian institution nor a Southern institution. As it once was in the early days on the Cumberland Plateau, it is again perched between two worlds. Its recent work with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and the Furniture Workers. Union has placed Highlander once again in the position of working with black people from the South. Yet the work in Appalachia has continued and in many cases has grown and expanded. This is perhaps best exemplified by the land ownership study recently concluded, and by other work coming out of Highlander’s resource center.
Two years ago when Highlander started talking about celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, there was a commitment on the part of the board members and the staff to use this occasion to explore the future–to celebrate and affirm the past, but more importantly, to look as unflinchingly as possible into the future, and what may be expected in time to come.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, Highlander had a very clear cut decision to make: to work with the labor movement or not to work with the labor movement. In the 1950’s and 60’s, it had the same kind of decision to make regarding the civil rights movement. In the 1960’s and early 70’s, it found a natural place working in the Appalachian coalfields. The question arises in 1982: What is now Highlanders situation and place?
Its place now can neither be defined by a county or a regional line and its situation is one shared with all the people of the world–tottering on the brink of nuclear disaster.
While Highlander must take its cues from the place where it works most closely, both the Appalachians and the Deep South, and focus on the issues that affect the people of these areas, it is quite clear that the issues affecting Highlander and the people it works with are
also issues that affect people all over the world. We cannot talk to people in one Appalachian community about toxic wastes without understanding that toxic waste has to be buried somewhere, and if not here then perhaps in someone else’s community. We cannot talk to people about absentee ownership of land without understanding that the same thing holds true in the Southwest and other parts of the country. We cannot talk about occupational health and safety as it relates to industries in this area and not understand that it affects workers all over the United States and all over the world. We cannot simply talk about the environmental health of the Tennessee Valley, lest our Canadian friends remind us about the effects of acid rain.
We feel poised on the edge of a new era at Highlander–an era which may see us working more again on issues that relate to minorities in the Deep South, and maintaining our ties with the communities of Appalachia.
The problem before us will be to keep our focus and understand always the strength and knowledge that comes from our own people. But we must also begin to see ourselves as part of a larger community. What is it that our Southern/Appalachian communities have in common with the Indian communities of the Southwest–especially as it regards the rape of the land and the theft of natural resources? What is it that we have in common with workers from Latin America as they battle the same trans-national corporations that affect us? And what do we have to teach other people?
Highlander doesn’t know the answers to all of these questions. The lesson we can learn from Highlander’s past is really the same as it was in 1932 as articulated by Myles Horton in the small community of Ozone.
You don’t have to know the answers. You raise the questions, sharpen the questions, get people to discussing them.
If anything is different now, it is that we must not only raise and sharpen the questions within our own community and region, but in the larger world community–anywhere that people are fighting for justice.
Illustrators: Malcolm Chisolm, artist and blacksmith, was on the Highlander staff in 1933. He left Highlander to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and died in the Spanish Civil War.
Candie Carawan its currently on the Highlander staff.
Sue Thrasher is on the program staff at Highlander.