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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Oliver Arney
The Highlander Folk School was unlike any school that you have seen today. If you could visit today, you would not find classrooms full of children, no large gyms holding P.E., and no playgrounds. That is because the Highlander Folk School did not teach children, it was a school for adults. The school was founded in the middle of the Great Depression and became a center of learning during the Civil Rights Movement.
Myles Horton from SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)
The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932, right in the middle of the Great Depression. The Great Depression began in 1929 when the stock market crashed and lasted until World War II in 1939. The Great Depression caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, homes, and many businesses failed. In the middle of all this, Myles Horton, Don West, and Jim Dombrowski had the idea to help provide education to rural Tennesseans. They founded the school near Monteagle, Tennessee in Grundy County. Their idea of the school did not include hiring teachers and providing classes on English, History, or Math, but rather the students would teach each other the knowledge and experience they gained from working various jobs. This created an informal kind of education, where the students and teachers were often the same, and relationships developed quickly.
Cartoon from the Nashville Banner about Highlander Folk School, from TSLA.
By the end of the 1930s, the Highlander Folk School had become known for helping workers organize into Labor Unions. Labor Unions are groups of workers who work together for a common good. That could be better pay or better working conditions. The Highlander Folk School helped organize Tennessee’s textile industry and other workers throughout the South.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Highlander Folk School, from Blackpast.
After World War II, the Highlander Folk School began to move away from organizing labor and became more focused on the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement fought to gain equal rights for everyone regardless of race, sex, religion, or age. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was focused on race. Many states, including Tennessee still had laws that banned African Americans from enjoying many things that white Americans could. These were called Jim Crow Laws and included segregation. African Americans could not eat in most restaurants with white Americans. Black and white children had to go to separate schools. Black Americans were not given as good of jobs as white Americans. The Civil Rights Movement aimed to change all of that. At the Highlander Folk School, they helped train people in forms of non-violent protests and how to desegregate communities, including schools. The Highlander Folk School did not just teach in Monteagle, they hosted programs all across the South. Even Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks attended and taught programs at Highlander. Trainees of the Highlander Folk School programs participated in the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, the 1960s sit-ins, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Students gather at Highlander, from SNCC.
In 1962, the Highlander Folk School was shut down by the State of Tennessee. Remember earlier when you read that Tennessee was one of the states to promote the separation of white and Black Americans? Well many in the government at the time still supported segregation. When Highlander Folk School challenged the status quo, some wanted the school shut down. Tennessee legislators held public hearings about the school. Eventually the State of Tennessee closed the school and took their property. This did not stop the organizers of the school. The next day, Highlander reopened in Knoxville as the Highlander Research and Education Center. After ten years in Knoxville, Highlander moved to New Market, Tennessee, where it resides today.
A teacher giving a lecture at Highlander Folk School, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Great Depression – A time between 1929 and 1939 when many Americans suffered economically. Banks and businesses failed, and many Americans lost their jobs, homes, and life savings.
Civil Rights Movement - The Civil Rights Movement was and still is an organized push for all Americans to have equal rights.
Labor Unions - Labor Unions are groups of skilled laborers, like auto workers or glass makers, who join together to improve their workplace. Those improvements could be safer work conditions, longer breaks, more paid days off, or to get better health insurance.
Jim Crow Laws - These were state and local laws that were meant to oppress Black Americans. This included segregation, grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and many more laws.
Status Quo – The way things are.
When was the Highlander Folk School founded?
What two events helped shape the Highlander Folk School?
Why would someone join a labor union?
What is one thing you think made the Highlander Folk School effective? Why do you think that worked?
Learn more about the history of the Highlander Folk School here: https://highlandercenter.org/our-history-timeline/
Learn more about segregation and the hardships African Americans have overcome for equal rights:
Oliver Arney is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.