Documents, photographs, and audio excerpts detailing the work of a leader in labor and civil rights.
The Highlander Folk School Digital Collection includes selected items from the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ holdings that relate to and tell the story of the Highlander Folk School. The majority show the inner workings of the school and include workshops, educational programs, reports, publications, flyers, booklets, and speeches.
A number of items from the Tennessee General Assembly’s Special Investigative Committee on Highlander (RG 114) detail the persistent efforts to discredit the school. Correspondence to governors reveal public opinion of both the school and the state’s investigation. Other highlights include songbooks compiled and used at Highlander in educational programs by its musical director Zilphia Horton.
Some audio excerpts have been made available from the Highlander Folk School Audio Collection from Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis, C. T. Vivian, Rosa Parks, Angeline Butler, Septima Clark, and Esau Jenkins. Some excerpts contain music from individuals such as Zilphia Horton, Guy Carawan, May Justus, and Pete Seeger.
Highlander Folk School was established in 1932, by Myles Horton, Don West, Jim Dombrowski, and others to train and organize Southern laborers. Horton's inspiration came from Reinhold Niebuhr, one of his professors at Union Theological Seminary, a proponent of Christian Socialism. Horton visited a number of Danish Folk Schools and decided to establish one in his home state of Tennessee. The school was founded on land donated by Dr. Lillian Johnson in Monteagle, Tennessee. The 1930s and 1940s saw Highlander train textile and industrial workers as well as union organizers across the South as an arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the 1950s, Highlander shifted its focus to Civil Rights and school integration. Between 1953 and 1961, Highlander conducted workshops for organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Staff, including Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson, held workshops to train organizers and held citizenship courses to help African Americans pass onerous literacy tests in order to vote. They eventually trained teachers to expand their network across the South. Their focus on integration brought unwanted attention from Southern state governments who investigated and eventually shuttered the school in 1961. Highlander was reopened the next day as the Highlander Research and Education Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. It moved to its current home in New Market in 1972. From the 1970s through the 1990s, Highlander worked to support the people of Appalachia defending its landscape and people from destructive environmental and labor practices. Highlander has continued its mission to advocate for worker's rights as well as human rights to this day.
Myles Horton was born in Savannah, Tennessee, in 1905, to Perry Horton and Elsie Falls Horton. Myles supported his high school education by working at a sawmill and box factory. He graduated from Cumberland University then attended Union Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago. At Union, he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, who he agreed with on worker’s rights, education, and the rejection of corporate capitalism. In 1931, Horton travelled to Denmark to tour the country’s folk schools, on which he would base Highlander. Horton’s objective was for those “who would otherwise have no educational advantages… to learn enough about themselves and society, to have something on which to base their decisions and actions whether in their own community or in an industrial situation…” Horton, Don West, Jim Dombrowski, and others established Highlander Folk School in 1932, in Monteagle, Tennessee. He met his wife, Zilphia Mae Johnson at a workshop there and the pair married in 1935. They had two children, Charis and Thorsten, before Zilphia’s death in 1956. In 1961, Myles married Aimee Isgrig, but they later separated. Horton died in 1990 at the age of 84. Horton’s role in the Civil Rights movement is often undervalued, but early organization of boycotts, marches, and voter education courses occurred at Highlander under the eye of Myles Horton.
Septima Poinsette Clark, educator and civil rights leader, was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898. Her father was born enslaved, and even by the time Septima was born, the city was strictly segregated. Clark grew up poor, having to babysit to afford primary school. After graduating from high school, she taught school on John's Island as black teachers were barred from teaching in Charleston's public schools. She first joined the NAACP in 1919 and fought for equal pay for black teachers in South Carolina for many years, finally securing a court victory in 1945. She obtained her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and studied under W. E. B. Du Bois during the summers. She was hired as director of workshops at Highlander in 1954, which continued until her arrest and the school padlocked in 1959. Afterwards she continued teaching citizenship schools across the South with both Highlander and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She retired from the SCLC in 1970. Septima Clark died in 1987. Highlander Research and Education Center’s new education center is named in honor of Clark.
Zilphia Horton was a musician, organizer, educator, Civil Rights activist, and folklorist. Horton was born in Spadra, Arkansas, to Robert Guy Johnson and Ora Ermon Howard Johnson. Her father was the superintendent of a coal mine. Zilphia was attracted to the labor movement by Claude Williams, who attempted to organize the coal miners into the Progressive Miners' Union, for which she was disowned by her father. After graduating from the College of the Ozarks, she attended a labor workshop at Highlander Folk Center where she met its founder Myles Horton. The two married just months later and Zilphia became the school's musical and drama director. She is credited with turning "We Will Overcome" into the Civil Rights' anthem "We Shall Overcome." Horton died tragically in 1956 after accidently ingesting a bottle of typewriter fluid.