Tennessee’s Highlander Research and Education Center – which has produced social change leaders and organizers for 80 years – was the victim of an arson attack earlier this year. The headquarters building and valuable archives were destroyed by fire, apparently set by white supremacists. Highlander has been plagued by right-wing attacks since it began.
Steeped in the popular education techniques of Paolo Freire, and deeply committed to social and racial change, economic and environmental justice, Highlander graduates included Rosa Parks, many other civil rights leaders, organizers fighting the coal companies and strip-mining, grassroots women’s organizations, and other courageous leaders of change in the South and Appalachia.
The following report is from Mike Clark, former Executive Director of the Center and of Friends of the Earth.
TO: Interested Friends
FM: Mike Clark
RE: Highlander Visit After Arson Fire
DT: April 16, 2019
My visit to the Knoxville area lasted three days, with most of that time spent talking with current and former staff. As expected, the fire has had a devastating impact on the school, but the staff are adjusting to a new reality and trying to assess the level of damage and how they can best recover.
The Highlander campus sits atop a 300 foot high ridge in rolling farmland country about 20 miles east of Knoxville. The dramatic view south looks across the Great Valley of Tennessee to the full range of the Smokies about 40 miles away. It is located in a somewhat remote rural location, with no close-by villages or communities. By the time a near-by neighbor noticed the fire at about 5:30 a.m. on March 29, the office building was in flames and the rural fire department trucks arrived too late to save anything of value.
The office structure was the nerve center of the school and included the main administrative and programmatic operations. Highlander has 10 separate structures scattered around the 200-acre farm. The historic residential facility, where workshops take place, is located about 100 yards from the office complex and was not damaged. Staff have now moved their workspaces to this unit temporarily as they create a new operations plan in wake of the fire.
Staff are still assessing the extent of damage, but the fire destroyed almost all administrative, financial, fund raising and programmatic records and files covering the last 20 years of operations. Due to recent mold and moisture issues within the archive and library building, a large number of records were being stored in the main office prior to being sent to archives in other states. These records burned. However, historical records dating from 1932 until about 2000 have long ago been placed with the Wisconsin State Archives and several state universities.
I spent the first day visiting with Highlander staff on the porch of the old farmhouse which served as an office when I ran the school almost 40 years ago. We watched a crew of eight state fire marshals pick their way through the burned office building located about 70 yards from the farmhouse. No official conclusion yet about the origin of the fire, or if it was arson or an accident. However, arson is likely. A little-known white power symbol was spray-painted on the parking lot asphalt near the burned building. Several recent graffiti incidents around East Tennessee were apparently carried out by a white power group, and one of its leaders was active in planning the Charlottesville riot earlier this year. None of these earlier incidents involved Highlander so the staff know of no reason why the school was targeted other than the obvious historical record of work on race, labor and the environment.
I had quite an emotional jolt sitting on the porch and looking out to the burned office, and then over the campus that I helped create. It reminded me how all are us are facing tough times in this global period of conflict and confrontation.
As expected, the staff are grappling with this incident and trying to decide what the key next steps are in rebuilding the office and regaining momentum and balance. The building was covered by fire insurance, but the institutional damage will take years to repair.
I have no doubt that they will recover and pick up their programmatic work with young black and white youth in the South and Appalachia. How movement groups respond to the growing presence of violent right-wing white power groups has yet to be determined.
If you wish to send a tax-exempt donation here is the address:
1959 Highlander Way
New Market, Tn. 37820