Highlander Folk School | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Highlander Folk School - Image Gallery Essay

A man, with his back to the camera, is gesturing at and lecturing a student class, who are seated in a variety of chairs.

Lecturing at Highlander

Monteagle, Tennessee. A man, Harvey L. Friedman, giving a lecture to a group of students at Highlander Folk School. View the original source document: WHI 52308

This gallery contains over 400 images of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. This social leadership center was focused on social activism in labor and civil rights since the 1930s. The gallery captures many of the people, events and issues involved in the school's history.

History of the Highlander Folk School

EnlargeCIO Session at Highlander Folk School featuring Frank McCallister, standing. Graph shows number of Americans employed vs. number of American workers unionized over time.

Frank McCallister with Unionization Graph, 1947 ca.

CIO Session at Highlander Folk School featuring Frank McCallister, standing. Graph shows number of Americans employed vs. number of American workers unionized over time. View the original source document: WHI 50905

The Highlander Folk School, and later the Highlander Research and Education Center, began in the 1930s as a social leadership center focused on labor organization in Monteagle, Tennessee. In 1953, Highlander shifted focus to civil rights, reflecting an underlying belief that progressive advances in the South depended greatly on defeating segregation.

Myles Horton and Don West created the Highlander Folk School in 1932 to educate rural and industrial leaders for what they called "a new social order." Through the mid-1940s, Highlander worked primarily to build a labor movement among farmers, laborers, miners and woodcutters by supporting strikes and training workers to take leadership roles.

Shifting to civil rights in 1953, Highlander drew the ire of the press during its 25th anniversary in 1957. Speakers at the event, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Aubrey Williams, were accused of inciting racial strife throughout the South. After the event, the Georgia Commission on Education published a propaganda piece entitled "Highlander Folk School; Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tennessee" that contained a photograph of a black man dancing with a white woman. The document outraged supremacist groups and set in motion a series of events that culminated in revocation of the school's charter by the State of Tennessee in 1961. To ensure that the school's operation would cease, the State took possession of the land and locked Highlander's doors.

A Lasting Legacy

EnlargeA woman speaking at a Civil Rights workshop.

Civil Rights Workshop

A woman speaking at a Civil Rights workshop. View the original source document: WHI 51291

Ever resilient, however, Horton and other leaders at the school reorganized as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moved the school from Monteagle to Knoxville, Tennessee. Highlander moved to its current location in New Market, Tennessee in 1971.

Throughout its 75 year history, Highlander has provided a critical voice for social and economic justice. Interspersed within the images of union workshops and daily life are portraits of some of America's most revered social activists, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Septima Clark and May Justus. The Civil Rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome" was first brought to Highlander and adapted by Zilphia Horton and then spread across the South and the world by folksingers Peter Seeger, Guy Carawan and others at Highlander. That this voice persists today serves as a testament to the vitality of American egalitarian ideals and as a reminder that the forces of inequality have yet to be fully silenced.

View the Gallery

Wisconsin History Tour.
.