New Market’s Highlander Center is topic of Seymour library forum

Nov. 02, 2013 @ 11:11 PM

You might not associate rural East Tennessee with the social justice movement. But since 1971, the Highlander Research and Education Center, outside New Market, has held workshops, camps and other gatherings to promote progressive causes like environmentalism and worker health.

“It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it?” said Susan Williams, the center’s resource center coordinator. “People come here from all over the world.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, at the Seymour Branch Library, Williams will give a presentation about the Highlander Center and its activities. Set for 7:30 p.m., the talk is part of “How We Live: Then and Now,” a series of history-related events hosted by the Seymour library.

Highlander Center happenings include its annual homecoming. This year’s homecoming, which took place in September, featured Detroit’s Grace Lee Boggs, the 95-year-old activist and author. The center also hosts a camp for Southern and Appalachian youth called Seeds of Fire, as well as a camp for younger kids, Children’s Justice Camp.

The center, a nonprofit organization, is situated on a rural campus.

“We’re up on a high ridge with a beautiful view,” said Williams. “We have a workshop center, a dorm, a library building. They’re not fancy.”

The center raises some of its income by renting the facility to college and youth groups. “It’s a beautiful piece of land where you can come and rest,” Williams said. “A lot of what happens is people meeting other people and getting ideas.”

The Highlander Center’s history dates back to 1932, when its predecessor, the Highlander Folk School, was founded in Monteagle. Co-founder Myles Horton was inspired by Danish folk schools, which, according to the center’s website, “played a vital role in revitalizing Danish culture and addressing the country’s social and economic problems.”

Early on, Highlander focused on labor organizing. Later, the center hosted workshops related to the civil rights movement, including one attended by Alabama civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks – before her 1955 bus protest.

“People thought she just sat down on the bus because she was tired,” Williams said. “She worked for justice and civil rights her whole life.”

Other visitors to the center, which was based in Knoxville from 1961 to 1971, have included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis and Pete Seeger.

The Seymour library has hosted the “How We Live” series since March. It is organized by Friends of Seymour Library. Programs in the series have featured old-time music, storytelling, history talks and Appalachian-themed films.

“It’s for people interested in history, the history of Sevier County and Seymour,” said Lucy Henighan, a member of the friends group. “People came out in droves for the one we did about Seymour. We try to do a variety of things that appeal to a variety of people.”

The friends group devised the program, Henighan said, for “a couple of reasons. We’re trying to build more interest in the library, and we basically feel that this is an opportunity to give people something they might not get otherwise."

Attendees can "broaden their knowledge of this area," Henighan said. "And expand the way they think about things.”