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Dec. 8, 2022

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Library that sparked civil rights efforts is embroiled in battle

Property was taken, auctioned off by Tennessee in 1950s

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This 2021 photo shows library building of Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tenn. A fight is brewing in Tennessee over the legacy of a legendary social justice school that counts Rosa Parks among its alumni and Eleanor Roosevelt among its supporters. One of the few buildings left is the Highlander library. Preservationists restored the building and want it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This 2021 photo shows library building of Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tenn. A fight is brewing in Tennessee over the legacy of a legendary social justice school that counts Rosa Parks among its alumni and Eleanor Roosevelt among its supporters. One of the few buildings left is the Highlander library. Preservationists restored the building and want it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But the Highlander Research and Education Center never stopped working from a new location.(David Currey via AP) (Nashville Banner Archives, Nashville Public Library, Special Collections) Photo Gallery

A library where Rosa Parks, John Lewis and other civil rights leaders forged strategies that would change the world is mired in controversy over who gets to tell its story.

On one side are preservationists who want to turn the Highlander Folk School library into a historic site. On the other, political organizers say Highlander never stopped pursuing social justice and should recover the building as a stolen part of its legacy.

Enraged by race-mixing at the Highlander Folk School in the 1950s, Tennessee officials confiscated the property and auctioned it off in pieces in a vain attempt to stifle the civil rights movement. The library is one of the few remaining campus buildings.

But Highlander as an institution never really closed — it just moved locations. It lives on today as the Highlander Research and Education Center, whose leaders are rallying opposition to listing the library in the National Register of Historic Places, saying they were frozen out of the process.

David Currey, a board member at the Tennessee Preservation Trust, has managed the library’s restoration since the trust bought the site in 2014, saving it from redevelopment. He said his goal has always been to preserve the site so that visitors can learn about the momentous events that happened there in the first half of the 20th century. There would be few books or movies if stories could be told only by those directly involved, he said, and “Nobody owns the past.”

“It’s a myth that they are best suited to tell our history,” said Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Highlander’s first Black co-director. “People who made that history are still alive.”

A letter Highlander sent to the historic registry says the Trust is not fit to serve as a steward.

“Approving the nomination of the Highlander Folk School Library in its current form will allow an elite, white-led institution to coopt and control the historical narrative of a site most significant for its work with Black, multiracial, poor and working-class communities,” the letter says.

Currey, who is white, frames the issue much differently. He says the trust stepped in to preserve the property when no one else would.

“Our cause from the start has been an honorable endeavor to recognize and pay tribute to the history and legacy of the early 20th century’s social justice movements in Tennessee,” Currey wrote in an email to the AP.

Founded in the 1930s as a center for union organizing, the school in Monteagle, Tenn., counted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt among its early supporters.

Protest music was integral to its work, with Woody Guthrie leading sing-alongs to inspire future demonstrations, and Pete Seeger workshopping “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem that has been sung by activists ever since.

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