Highlander Folk School: “Culturally organizing” to continue the legacy of the Highlander Libraries

Books on the shelf at the Highlander Library exhibit at the University Art Gallery. Photo by Rob Mohr (C’21).

By Amelia Leaphart
Executive Staff

On January 24, the University Art Gallery hosted a panel discussion about the Highlander Folk School. Founded in 1932 in Monteagle amid the Great Depression, the Highlander Libraries initially supported labor rights movements in Appalachia through educating workers on how to unionize. In the 1950s, the school shifted to help the Civil Rights movement. Leaders such as Rosa Parks attended a workshop four months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This gallery reignites the effect in the original space in Grundy County before it moved to Knoxville in 1962.

The space emphasizes equality in education. A round table meant for discussions and debates demonstrates how everyone’s voice is equally important. Chalkboards with phrases such as “you can’t padlock an idea” decorate the room. “How bold can you be?”  domineers over a circular set of chairs. These questions and phrases evoke a desire for social justice and awareness for those around oneself. 

A chalkboard from the exhibit reads, “You can’t padlock an idea.” Photo by Leaphart.

The speakers on the panel were Greg Pond, the project leader, and the co-executive editor of the current Highlander Research and Educational Center, Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele. The other co-executive, AshLee Woodard Henderson, could not be there in person but joined later in the panel via video. 

Pond explained how art can socially engage rather than remain dormant in a museum. Thus, the Highlander Library exhibit is open for anyone to utilize. He describes art as “a facilitator” and “the people you work with as projects.” Pond views art as a transformative process where art has a desired outcome in the viewer while the creators change alongside the art’s development. He said the point of Highlander was to create a platform for “creativity and social justice.”

After Pond spoke and thanked those who helped with the project, Allyn Maxfield Steele told everyone to stand up. He said, “If we can’t sing together we can’t get free together.” So, with much hesitation from the audience, he taught them a song to sing together which was repeated until the audience became confident. 

Corrine Parrish (C’21), who attended for her Business of Religion class, said she felt peaceful after singing. Another spectator volunteered from the audience to say how he and the person next to him drove up from Chattanooga and Nashville by themselves. He said that he felt lonely after the drive, but he felt connected after singing with others there. This exercise coincides with the term “cultural organizing,” Steele coins later in the panel. He defines the term as “drawing upon peoples’ experiences to shift policy.” While policy can refer to government, Steele also defines it as social constructs/ expectations. The singing exercise broke the construct of the expectations during a panel through audience engagement and comfort. Exhibits have the power to shift people’s personal policy. 

From increasing financial literacy among the working-class during the Great Depression and preparing African-Americans for the unfair literacy test to vote, to initiating environmental-justice movements against coalfields in Appalachia, the Highlander Folk School has encountered a myriad of obstacles. In the 1950s, rumors spread of the school being a purveyor of Communist ideology. These false and fear-mongering allegations led to controversy tainting the school’s name.

Furthermore, in 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked the school’s license for engaging in commercial activity when it was registered as a non-profit and it temporarily closed. The empty spaces on the book-shelves in the exhibit symbolized books banned from the library by the state of Tennessee.

Recently, in March 2019, the main office of the Knoxville location of the libraries was set on fire alongside artifacts and documents. While no one was physically injured, a White Power sign was found near the rubble. These struggles with the physical space coincide with the struggles of the working class and minorities. These hurtful obstacles highlight the endless road to reconciliation, and demonstrate why it is still important for the Highland Folk School to be remembered and honored.