Fire at Highlander Center

By Laurel Bowen, University Archivist, Georgia State University

Atlanta is well known for civil rights activism, as evidenced by the numerous archival repositories, cultural resources, and historical sites that bear witness to that history. They include:

        National Center for Civil and Human Rights;
        Civil Rights Digital Library;
        Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Collection;
        Archives and research centers at the Atlanta University Center, Atlanta History Center, and Atlanta-Fulton Public Library;
        Civil rights collections and materials at Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, Georgia State University, and Emory University;
        Living Atlanta Oral History Collection at the American Folklife Center (Library of Congress);
        Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park (formerly MLK National Historic Site);
        Atlanta’s “Off the Wall” public art collection (murals) documenting civil rights and social justice movements.
Colleagues who attended the SGA conference last October may remember an afternoon session on “Split Collections: Outreach Across Multiple Institutions.” The session explored ways to identify and cooperatively expand access to African-American history collections split among different institutions. One of the four presenters was Susan Williams, coordinator of the Highlander Library/Resource Center and a member of the Education team.
We often focus on public demonstrations and other expressions of activism. We should also consider the origins of advocacy—how advocates are motivated, what strategies they choose, and by what means a movement grows. The Highlander Center (, created in 1932 as the Highlander Folk School, has long served as an important Tennessee-based social justice incubator, offering a forum for discussion as well as workshops and training sessions for those concerned with social and economic issues. In the 1930s and 1940s this work focused on the unemployed and evolved into a training center for union organizers in eleven southern states. In the 1950s and 1960s the Highlander provided a non-segregated space for interaction, discussion, and strategy development for many Atlanta civil rights leaders including Rosa Parks, Ralph David Abernathy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Following several government investigations of the Folk School’s work during the McCarthy and early civil rights eras, the state of Tennessee revoked its charter in 1961 and seized its land and buildings. The school reopened the next day as the Highlander Research and Education Center and relocated to Knoxville, where it remained for a decade until it moved in 1972 to its current location near New Market.
At our last SGA conference, this past history as a social justice center and the resulting government actions were cited as a rationale for moving many of the Highlander’s oldest and most historic records to an off-site archival repository. Five months after our conference—on March 29—the Highlander was the target of suspected arson. According to news reports, investigators were focusing on a symbol spray painted on the pavement near the charred building. The symbol, resembling a hashtag or tic-tac-toe grid but with three horizontal and vertical lines, is known to be used by white supremacists.
The Atlanta civil rights connection is explored in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Later reports in the Knoxville News Sentinel (4/5/19) indicate the symbol may have existed prior to the fire, but Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) has called for a federal investigation. While the oldest group of the Highlander’s archival records (dating from about 1917 to 2005) are at the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Highlander said “decades of historic documents” had been destroyed in the fire. An update on May 14 from the Highlander says the cause of the fire is still undetermined, but all of the staff are safe and messages of encouragement and support continue to pour in from around the world.

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