Fire Damages the Highlander Center

By Dave Cooper

The Highlander Education and Research Center, located northeast of Knoxville, in New Market, Tennessee is the historic civil rights and labor training center where Rosa Parks received training several months before her historic actions helped launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

On March 29, an early-morning fire destroyed the main building at Highlander, and a white power symbol was later found spray-painted in the parking lot.  Although no one was injured in the blaze, Highlander staff report the loss of their central gathering place, computers, files, notebooks, books, readings, folders, and letters.  Fortunately, many of Highlander’s archives had been previously relocated to safe storage in Wisconsin.

Highlander was founded in 1932 in Monteagle, Tennessee as the Highlander Folk School by Myles Horton, Jim Dombrowski, Don West and others.  West would later go on to found the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia. Initially formed to train union organizers during the Great Depression, Highlander began focusing on civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.  Citizen Education Schools at Highlander led by Septima Clark helped Blacks register to vote throughout the south, and the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was adapted by Zilphia Horton, wife of Myles Horton, and was taught to attendees.

In the 1970s, Highlander worked to support anti-strip mining efforts in Appalachia, and today is well-known for its efforts to end oppression of minority groups and the LGBTQ+ community, offering leadership and organizer training.  Participants at Highlander gatherings are invited to sit in wooden rocking chairs placed in a circle.  Appalachian and folk music are an important part of Highlander gatherings – folksingers Guy and Candy Carawan kept the folk music legacy alive at Highlander for decades.

Federal agents from ATF and state officials with Tennessee Bureau of Investigation are currently examining materials from the blaze to see if there is any connection to the recent string of church arsons, but no arrests have been made.


Posts from Highlander’s staff:

Beloved community:

We are here, standing strong, in our rightful place. The fire that destroyed our main office building on March 29 did not destroy us or our work. This was not the first attempt rooted in white supremacy, white nationalism, and white violence to uproot Highlander’s 87 ½ years of building, supporting and accompanying liberatory movements by flanking and developing the leadership of directly-impacted people across issue, identity, and geography. We know that our work is vital, important, and impactful because we threaten the systems that are designed for our oppression and we obviously threaten the work of those who uphold those systems using a primary strategy of increasing divides through racism and violence.

…While we do not know the names of the culprits, we know that the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across this nation, and globally. Since 2016, the white power movement has become more visible, and we’ve seen that manifest in various ways, both subtle and overt.


When President Donald Trump stated after the Charlottesville attack that there were “good people on both sides” most Americans were outraged and dumbfounded.  It seemed pretty clear to me that his words were intended to support and even encourage the white supremacists.  Shamefully, the Highlander blaze has mostly been met by silence from elected representatives in Congress.


Donations to the Highlander Center can be made via their website