Who can tell the story of a historic civil rights site?

A library where Rosa Parks, John Lewis and other civil rights leaders forged world-changing strategies 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 hand, civic organizers say the Highlander never stopped pursuing social justice and should reclaim the building as a stolen part of its heritage.

Enraged by racial mixing at the Highlander Folk School in the 1950s, Tennessee officials seized the property and auctioned it off in pieces in a futile attempt to quell the civil rights movement. The library is one of the few remaining buildings on campus.

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 oppose listing the library on the National Register of Historic Places, saying they are frozen out by the process.

David Currey, a board member at the Tennessee Preservation Trust, has managed the restoration of the library since the trust purchased the site in 2014, saving it from redevelopment. He said his goal has always been to preserve the site so visitors can learn about the important events that happened there in the first half of the 20th century. There would be few books or films if the stories could only be told by those directly involved, he said, and “No one belongs to the past.”

“It’s a myth that they’re best suited to tell our story,” said Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Highlander’s first black co-director. “The people who wrote this story are still alive.”

A letter sent by the Highlander to the historic register says the Trust is not fit to act as trustees, stoking racial tension in a place that promoted a common struggle for racial harmony.

“Approving the nomination of the Highlander Folk School Library in its current form will allow an elite, white-led institution to capture and control the historical narrative of a place most important for its work with black, multiracial , poor and working class communities. ” reads the letter, which also accuses trust members of glorifying the Confederacy.

Currey, who is white, frames the issue very differently. He says the trust stepped in to preserve the property when no one else would, and plans to celebrate Highlander’s past achievements.

“Our purpose from the beginning has been an honorable effort to recognize and pay tribute to the history and legacy of early 20th century social justice movements in Tennessee, including labor and Civil Rights struggles and their leaders,” he wrote. Currey in an email to the AP.

Founded in the 1930s as a center for union organizing, the school in Monteagle, Tenn., counts first lady Eleanor Roosevelt among its early supporters. Protest music was integral to her work, with Woody Guthrie leading singalongs to inspire future protests and Pete Seeger workshopping “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem sung by activists ever since.

Highlander co-founder and longtime leader Myles Horton, a white man, created a space almost unique in the Jim Crow South where white and black activists could form and strengthen alliances.

Parks attended a Highlander workshop a few months before refusing to move to the back of a segregated city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. “It was one of the few times in my life up to that point that I did not feel hostility from white people,” she wrote in her autobiography.

Lewis had a similar experience long before he became a civil rights icon and member of Congress. Highlander “was the first time in my life that I saw blacks and whites not only sitting together at long tables for a communal meal, but also cleaning up together afterwards, doing the dishes together, gathering together late at night in deep conversation. “, he wrote in a memoir.

The school’s success made it a target—it was labeled communist, investigated by the FBI, and raided by the state of Tennessee, which eventually revoked its charter. The original buildings were destroyed. The library was converted into a detached house.

But the Highlander didn’t disappear — it just moved three hours northeast to New Market, Tenn., near Knoxville.

“Our property was stolen because it brought blacks and whites together to preserve democracy,” Henderson said. “The land should be repatriated, back to the Highlander Folk School, which is now the Highlander Research and Education Center.”

The trust has spent seven years restoring the library to its original form. Local Grundy County donors contributed most of the funding, but Currey said he has also spent thousands of his own dollars. His vision is to spin off a non-profit organization, separate from the trust, that would own and operate the library as both a historic site and community resource, and the Highlander could run a program explaining its ongoing work justice and education.

Henderson said she’s grateful the trust stepped in when the center couldn’t afford it, but she doesn’t see the old Folk School as separate from Highlander now, which celebrates 90 years of hosting with a homecoming later this month. He said the center had recently offered to buy the library from the trust, but had not received a definitive answer.

“If there’s going to be a transfer, why not at Highlander?” co-director Allyn Maxfield-Steele asked. If Highlander controlled the building, he would develop a plan for its use with “the people on the ground in Grundy County,” he said.

Currey remains hopeful that the trust and the center can work together to promote the legacy of a building that both organizations consider incredibly important.

National Register listing would open up new funding sources in a state that doesn’t provide tax incentives for historic preservation, Currey said. He worries that the Highlander controversy will make preservationists less likely to take on a similar project in the future.

“It’s already so difficult in Tennessee to save some of our historic resources,” Currey said. “This may be one of the most high-profile civil rights sites — as John Lewis told me — in the nation.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *