Group Triying to Preserve Highlander Folk School

A Nashville-based historic preservation group has started working to buy what it can of the the Highlander Folk School’s Grundy County property, restore its historical look and protect it from development, reports the Tennessean.

“It’s really one of the first places where you see African-Americans and whites that are actually congregating to talk about social issues,” David Currey, chairman of the Tennessee Preservation Trust, said during a visit to Highlander’s old library. “Trying to get our hands on this piece of property allows us to tell that story again in the context of this rural setting, which is what it was at the time.”

Currey said he’s trying to secure options to buy the property, now reduced to two cabins and a library beside a placid mountain lake. The land he’s working to assemble totals 13.5 acres, just a small fraction of the 200 acres where Myles Horton started the school in 1932.

The preservation trust hopes to raise about $1 million through a national campaign to buy and possibly renovate the property, Currey said. It would then turn the site over to another group to operate it, perhaps an organization created for that purpose.

Currey said he hopes Highlander Research and Education Center, which Horton started once the state shut down his original organization, and The University of the South in nearby Sewanee will be involved.

Pam McMichael, director of Highlander Research and Education Center, which has been based in New Market, Tenn., northeast of Knoxville, since 1971, said the preservation trust’s plans could “bring heightened public awareness and engagement with Highlander’s work today.”

McMichael’s organization, which owns the Highlander Folk School name, is in the middle of its own, $3.2 million fundraising campaign. It trains about 3,000 people a year to seek “justice in all its forms,” she said.

The story’s narrative lead on some of the Highlander history:

Rosa Parks trained here a few months before she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus. “We Shall Overcome” became a civil rights anthem here. Student activists from Nashville held retreats in the lakeside buildings, and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to visit.

More than 50 years after the state of Tennessee seized Highlander Folk School’s property, not much remains of a place that gave so much inspiration to people who fought for social justice while posing such a visceral threat to the status quo that its founder was accused of being a Communist agitator