Highlander Folk Center: It's Hard to Keep a Good Idea Down
Main Building of Highlander Folk School
The Highlander Folk Center, originally called the Highlander Folk School, was founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, Don West, and Jim Dombrowski. The first campus was located in Monteagle, TN. Highlander Folk Center was founded to teach people how to organize peaceful protests and unionize.
Highlander Folk School/Center (HFC) was an important part of the Civil Rights Movement. The HFC trained activists to participate in peaceful protests like the Greensboro Sit-in and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks went to Highlander Folk School as well as Martin Luther King Jr. and gave a speech at the school. The Highlander Center also created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Other social issues the Highlander Center has supported include anti-strip mining as well as worker health and safety struggles. The Highlander Folk School was investigated by the government several times, including the FBI. The Tennessee state government shut down the school, the reason given was because it was believed that the curriculum used by the school was communist. However, the school was shut down because it was desegregated, but this could not be the official reason for closing the school as desegregation was not illegal at the time the school was closed. The very next day it reopened under its current name, the Highlander Research and Education Center Knoxville, TN, and remained at that location until 1971. It moved to its current campus in New Market, TN, in 1972.
Highlander Folk School Historic Marker
With all of these factors, it was inevitable that a student at HFC would decide to conduct an independent study on land rights in Appalachia due to their grassroots activist agenda. Students at the Highlander Center were allowed to do independent projects. The independent study by the Highlander Folk Center student on land rights in Appalachia later led to the Appalachian Land Ownership Survey that was done by the Highlander Folk Center and Appalachian State University. Many of the residents in Appalachia were poor and did not own their own land. It was instead owned by companies who did not use it. This study covered a very important issue that HFC was interested in at the time. Mining companies owned much of the land in Appalachia, but the companies did not pay taxes, and they got the revenues from owning land enriched with valuable minerals. The residents were denied revenues from this land after selling the land and mineral rights to the mining companies. The residents of Appalachia, many of which were already living in poverty, felt that this was unjust. This project served as an intersection of environmental activism and civil rights which are both important to Highlander Folk Center.
The Highlander Folk Center needed funding and more people to complete the survey than those the Center itself could provide. Appalachian State University became a partner to the Highlander Folk Center to provide funding and people to do the survey so that the Appalachian Land Survey could be accomplished.
Front of the historic marker of the Highlander Folk School.