Highlander Folk School
HIGHLANDER FOLK SCHOOL
Established near Monteagle, Tennessee, in 1932, the Highlander Folk School was an important outpost of labor education and union organizing in the South during the 1930s. Through residential workshops, off-campus extension efforts, and community-based programs, the staff, headed by Myles Horton, simultaneously attempted to educate leaders for a new social order while enriching the cultural values of the southern Appalachian region.
In its initial years, Highlander's objectives usually outpaced its actual achievements. The school involved itself in local strikes that were no more than temporarily successful, and internal differences over policies, curriculum, finances, and ideology were almost constant concerns. Highlander's staff members sincerely supported the interests of the working class and the cause of racial integration. But the faculty's participation in socialistrelated activities in the early and mid-1930s did little to increase the school's appeal to southern wage earners, and it repeatedly found itself compelled to acquiesce to southern white sentiment and not admit black workers as students.
Nonetheless, in aiding mine, lumber, textile, and relief workers in Tennessee, and in introducing ways to overcome racial prejudice, Highlander anticipated the efforts of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to form interracial industrial unions in the South. Staff members served as union organizers for the 1937 Textile Workers Organizing Committee campaign and managed the educational component of several other union drives thereafter, assisting locals in maintaining and expanding their activities and teaching workers how to bargain collectively and live successfully under union contracts. Through its fieldwork, the Highlander faculty learned more about the problems facing unionizing southern laborers and used these experiences to improve the school's promotion of the southern labor movement. Indeed, by the late 1930s Highlander was a vital source of labor education in the South, holding semiannual residence terms for men and women representing nearly every labor and progressive organization in the region and experimenting with educational ventures such as music and drama programs, writers' workshops, and junior union camps. It would become fully integrated in 1944.
Such initiatives generated both controversy and support. Attacked on the one hand by southern industrialists, some Tennessee newspapers, and local officials angered by Highlander's mobilization of a labor-led political coalition, and on the other by leftists impatient with the school's refusal to be sufficiently doctrinaire, staff members adhered to a loosely-defined set of democratic principles that they believed offered concrete solutions to the concerns of southern workers. This broad-based commitment led to a decade of close cooperation between Highlander and the CIO.
That relationship soured after World War II, however. Frustrated by what it considered to be the narrowing of organized labor's agenda, and unable to forge a farmer-labor coalition, the school's leadership resolved that it would not attain its goals until it challenged southern segregation. Highlander subsequently became a significant forum for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The center remains committed to ongoing struggles for social justice in Appalachia and the Deep South in the twenty-first century.
Adams, Frank. Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. 1975.
Glen, John M. Highlander: No Ordinary School, 2nd edition. 1996.
Horton, Aimee Isgrig. The Highlander Folk School: A History of Its Major Programs 1932–1961. 1989.
Horton, Myles, with Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl. The Long Haul: An Autobiography. 1990.
John M. Glen