Due to the high unemployment rates and lack of workers’ rights during the Great Depression, the Highlander Folk School provided training and education for the labor movement throughout the South.
It was not uncommon for Highlander staff members to support strikes, organize drives, and train workers to prepare them for leadership roles within various labor unions.
By the time that the Great Depression was coming to an end, the Highlander Folk School shifted its focus from the Labor Movement to the Civil Rights Movement.
It was not a surprising move. According to the school’s website, “Highlander’s long tradition of working with African Americans in the labor movement put the school in a strong position to support the movement to end segregation, which is right where it wanted to be.”
Highlander Targeted With Racism
Since the school participated so heavily in these controversial movements, the Highlander was commonly the target of a wide variety of racism and bigotry. The school was quickly labeled as “Communist friendly.”
The FBI’s file on the school contains letter after letter from people inquiring about allegations that the Highlander Folk School was on the FBI “subversive” list of communists.” The letters and the allegations led the FBI to document that the Highlander Folk School “has for years been the object of public scorn based on allegations that it is Pro-Communist.”
Even though the FBI did not release any information at the time, they did conduct an investigation into the school, its faculty, its students, and its activities. The FBI file stated that the agency:
“…determined that the school had had Communist Party members on its staff as instructors and had welcomed Communist Party members as students, but there was no evidence that the school was Communist dominated. The organization was never cited by the U.S. Attorney General as subversive.”
Nevertheless, the school was forced to close its doors by the state of Tennessee in 1961.
Highlander Folk School Identified as Subversive
At the time, Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter and confiscated its land and property based on the “fact” that the school was “subversive.”
The school states that there was one publication, in particular, that caused the Tennessee State Supreme Court to get involved.
“The Georgia Commission on Education published a sensational piece of propaganda called Highlander Folk School; Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tennessee. Featuring pictures from the Labor Day event, including one of a black man dancing with a white woman, the publication proved to be an effective tool for organizing white supremacists against Highlander.”
Even though the state forced the school to close its doors along with confiscating all of Highlander’s land and property, the founders did not intend to roll over so easily. Shortly after closing, the school’s staff reincorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moved the facilities to Knoxville, TN.
Highlander Reopens in Tennessee
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the Highlander shifted its mission again. The school began to focus more on the health and safety of coal workers in and around the Appalachian region. They also began to focus on “environmental justice,” a predecessor of today’s environmentalism.
The school, now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, is still open today. It is presently located in New Market, TN.
Just as it did in the ’30s through today, the school focuses on labor and civil rights issues. It presently describes itself as “ a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South.”Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com