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Highlander: In Support of that Sacred Place

Saturday, June 22, 2019   (0 Comments)
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In Support of that Sacred Place

Patricia R. Brewer, Ed.D.

“Highlander is a sacred place built by communities of the most affected people and it has become a home to those who believe in freedom and collective liberation here in the south, across the U.S. and around the world.” (Retrieved from

When Susan Williams, Educator and Librarian at the Highlander Research and Education Center, presented a two-part workshop at AAACE’s 2017 Memphis Annual Conference, those of us in attendance had a unique and wonderful experience.  Ms. Williams brought with her photos and mini-biographies of some of the people who had been part of Highlander during the preceding four decades.  “Highlander Center – 85 Years of Social Justice Education in Tennessee” allowed AAACE attendees to portray one of those social justice advocates and to be introduced to many others.  I left that session grateful for the chance to learn more about Highlander’s story and influence in a way that was faithful to adult learning principles. 

Many adult educators are familiar with the Highlander story:  the co-founding of Highlander in 1932 by Miles Horton, Don West, and James Dombrowski; the creation of an adult education environment that reflected the ideas of Danish Folk Schools and the founders’ passion for social justice, literacy, and worker rights; the ultimate focus on civil rights that led to training some of the most important leaders of that movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Rosa Parks; and the birthing of “We Shall Overcome” by Highlander musician Zilphia Horton.  In recent years, and after Miles Horton’s death in 1969, the Center focused on worker safety and environmental justice issues, primarily in the Appalachian region of the country.  The Center currently leads initiatives on youth immigration and democratic participation.

Highlander’s history is also filled with negative reactions, accusations of communist sympathizing, charges of violating segregation laws, and other state-approved harassments that forced the relocation of the Center to New Market, Tennessee in 1971.  More recently, on March 29 of this year, a fire destroyed the main office building that housed many of the archives associated with the Center.  Although no one was injured in the fire, the Center lost decades of historic documents that told the Highlander story.  Some of those very pictures and biographies that Susan Williams shared with AAACE members just two years ago may have been part of that loss.  A White power movement symbol was found painted on the parking lot near the burning office.

Local, state, and federal agencies continue to investigate the fire, but as of now, the cause of the fire has not been determined and no arrests have been made. Staff and supporters of Highlander are committed to continuing the Center as that sacred place for freedom, liberation, and education. As adult educators, we have a vested interest in ensuring their success. To read more about Highlander's mission, or to donate to their recovery efforts, go to


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