Struggle over the future of the library that sparked ideas about civil rights

A library where Rosa Parks, John Lewis and other civil rights leaders forged strategies that would change the world is mired in a controversy over who can tell their story.

On one side are conservationists who want to turn the Highlander Folk School library into a historic site. On the other hand, political organizers claim that Highlander has never ceased to seek social justice and should reclaim the building as a stolen part of his inheritance.

Enraged by racial mixing at the Highlander Folk School in the 1950s, Tennessee officials confiscated the property and auctioned it off in pieces in a futile attempt to stifle the civil rights movement. The library is one of the few remaining buildings on campus.

But Highlander, as an institution, never really closed down – it just changed location. It lives today as the Highlander Research and Education Center, whose leaders oppose the library’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, saying they have been left out of the process.

Tennessee Preservation Trust board member David Currey has managed the library’s restoration since the trust purchased the site in 2014, saving it from redevelopment. He said his goal has always been to preserve the site so that visitors can learn about the landmark events that took place there in the first half of the 20th century. There would be few books or movies if the stories could only be told by the people directly involved, he said, and “nobody owns the past.”

“It’s a myth that they are the best people to tell our story,” said Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Highlander’s first black co-director. “The people who made this story are still alive.”

A letter sent by Highlander to the Historical Register says the Trust is unfit to serve as a steward, stoking racial tensions at a place that has promoted a common struggle for interracial harmony.

“Approving the naming of the Highlander Folk School Library in its current form will allow an elite white-run institution to co-opt and control the historical narrative of a site most important to its work with black communities , multi-racial, poor and working-class,” reads the letter, which also accuses trusted members of glorifying the Confederacy.

Currey, who is white, approaches the issue very differently. He says the trust stepped in to preserve the property when no one else would, and plans to celebrate Highlander’s past accomplishments.

“Our cause from the beginning has been an honorable effort to recognize and honor the history and legacy of early 20th century social justice movements in Tennessee, including labor and civil rights struggles, and its leaders,” Currey wrote in an email to the AP.

Founded in the 1930s as a center for labor organizing, the school in Monteagle, Tennessee, counted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt among its earliest supporters. Protest music was an integral part of his work, with Woody Guthrie leading songs to inspire future protests, and Pete Seeger turning ‘We Shall Overcome’ into an anthem sung by activists ever since.

Highlander co-founder and longtime leader Myles Horton, a white man, created an almost unique space in the Jim Crow South where white and black activists could build and strengthen alliances.

Parks attended a Highlander workshop a few months before refusing to ride on the back of a separate city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. “It was one of the few times in my life up to that time when I didn’t feel the hostility of white people,” she wrote in her autobiography.

Lewis had a similar experience long before he became a civil rights icon and congressman. Highlander “was the first time in my life that I saw blacks and whites not only sitting together at long tables for shared meals, but also cleaning up together afterwards, washing dishes together, congregating late at night in an in-depth discussion,” he wrote in a memoir.

The school’s success made it a target—labeled a communist, investigated by the FBI, and raided by the state of Tennessee, which eventually revoked its charter. The original buildings have been destroyed. The library has been transformed into a single family home.

But Highlander didn’t disappear – it just moved three hours northeast toward New Market, Tennessee, near Knoxville.

“Property was stolen from us because it brought blacks and whites together to preserve democracy,” Henderson said. “The land should be repatriated, back to the Highlander Folk School, which is now the Highlander Research and Education Center.”

The trust spent seven years restoring the library to its original form. Local Grundy County donors contributed most of the funding, but Currey said he also spent thousands of dollars. Its vision is to create a not-for-profit organization, separate from the trust, that would own and operate the library as a historic site and community resource, and Highlander could run a program explaining its ongoing justice and justice work. education.

Henderson said she’s grateful the trust stepped in when the center couldn’t afford it, but she doesn’t see the old folk school as separate from Highlander now, which celebrates 90 years of organization with a throwback to sources later this month. She said the center recently offered to buy the library from the trust, but got no definitive response.

“If there is going to be a transfer, why not to Highlander? asked co-director Allyn Maxfield-Steele. If Highlander controlled the building, he would work out a plan for its use with “the people on the ground in Grundy County,” he said.

Currey remains hopeful that the trust and the center can work together to promote the legacy of a building that both organizations consider extremely important.

Listing on the National Registry would open up new sources of funding in a state that doesn’t offer tax incentives for historic preservation, Currey said. He fears the Highlander controversy will make conservationists less likely to take on a similar project in the future.

“It’s already so difficult in Tennessee to save some of our historic resources,” Currey said. “It is perhaps one of the most prominent civil rights sites – as John Lewis told me – in the country.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Comments are closed.