by BriteHeart | 4.11.19
“At 6 a.m., I got a call saying that our office building was fully engulfed in flames,” Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, remembers. On the morning of Friday, March 29, the Highlander Center’s main office burned to the ground. She rushed there to find firefighters and investigators already on the scene of the blaze at the legendary hub of the civil rights movement.
“The building was just — the only way I know how to articulate it right now is that it was gone. And I felt an overwhelming sense of grief.”
Henderson's first concern was with safety; luckily, no one was hurt in the fire. Henderson, a leader of one of the nation’s foremost radical political organizing hubs, tells Teen Vogue that while the grief is real, the center’s 87-year history won’t be ended by a fire or a white-power symbol found in the parking lot.
The history of the Highlander Center (previously the Highlander Folk School) involves a who’s who of civil rights movement heroes. According to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Rosa Parks attended a workshop at Highlander in 1955, four months before her refusal to give up a bus seat sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The sit-in protests that began in the 1960s resulted in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), which traces its own roots to training sessions at Highlander. According to the SNCC, the civil rights movement anthem “We Shall Overcome” came out of a Highlander meeting; the center still manages a fund that distributes royalties from the song to grassroots black organizers.
MLK himself joined the school for its 25th-anniversary celebration in 1957, praising its role in fostering Southern civil rights movement leadership.
In more recent history, Highlander hosted a meeting of Black Lives Matter leaders after the 2016 election; it's also part of the United Front, an outgrowth of the Movement for Black Lives.
Henderson has a long personal history with the Highlander Center. Raised in Tennessee, she says she was in her late teens in the ’00s working on voter registration and education when she met civil rights movement veterans from groups like the SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality, and people like Freedom Riders from Mississippi who told her about Highlander.
“They were talking about this incredible training ground, where people came together across their differences — not only to learn about what was going on in different communities and to share stories but also to learn how to do what they were doing in hopes of building a better future for all people,” she says. “It was like a movement home and hub of a place where people could go and safely have these conversations and learn these skills and develop strategy.”
A view from the balcony of Highlander's Workshop Center
Courtesy of Say Film and Photo
The role of Highlander in African-American community organizing is hard to overstate. Situated since 1972 on an expansive farm in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, its lengthy history has meant that it has been a nexus of information, connections, and relationships for decades. Founded in 1932, it’s been involved with labor movements, the civil rights movement, broader Appalachian movements, and the Movement for Black Lives.
Fresco Steez, a 27-year-old organizer who’s been doing that work since she was 13 years old, says Highlander’s past and present are what make it special.
“When we pinpoint a lot of different organizing efforts within the civil rights movement, their anchor for their space to strategize, their space to plan campaigns, plan freedom and liberation — that all happened at the Highlander Center,” Steez says.
Steez remembers her first trip to Highlander at age 16: “I was honored and I was in awe that I was sitting in the same place as Ella Baker, sitting in the same place as a lot of civil rights heroes. You can feel that energy in the place.”
“We know that it's important to garner the wisdom of the elders that we still have access to,” Henderson says of the center’s focus on intergenerational organizing that brings past, present, and future together. “I think that because that's been some of the heart of our work, we have young people who understand that this is not the first storm we've weathered, which is why this moment isn't hopeless.” That doesn’t mean the moment isn’t without an emotional resonance that echoes through history.
“I think that it would be easy to just get frozen in fear or frozen in trauma and grief,” Henderson says of the fire’s emotional aftermath as she places it in context of the South's larger history of racist terror. “I think that what gives me hope is knowing that our comrades and colleagues that were my age — or quite frankly younger, much younger, when they were doing this work — survived those storms, too.” She says the center’s connections with youth movements that resisted and fought against slavery, Jim Crow laws, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, a lack of child labor laws, and for LGBTQ+ liberation make a difference.
“Highlander itself is resilient,” Steez tells Teen Vogue. “The community we organize in is also resilient. And the social justice community and the Movement for Black Lives and the larger movement for the freedom of marginalized people is not going to ever allow Highlander to be dismantled in the face of white supremacy.”
The center is still waiting for investigators to let them salvage what they can in the building that burned down. While the majority of the center’s archives remain safely stored in Wisconsin, Henderson says they know there may be some things lost that can’t be replaced.
“It's the stuff that's historic memory for Highlander that I grieve without knowing what all we might be able to salvage,” she tells Teen Vogue. “It's pictures that kids drew for us, people's baby pictures that they sent to us, thank-you cards for programs that we did.”
“Did we lose things? I'm sure of it,” she says. “Did we lose everything that was in that office? That remains to be seen until we get cleared by the investigators to be able to go in and salvage. We've gotten lots and lots and lots of folks that are experts on being able to do that that have offered their support.”
Courtesy of the Highlander Center
Henderson says the center didn’t want to “opportunistically” fund-raise after the fire tragedy, but she was pleasantly surprised by the various kinds of support that have already come through. “Even without us making a call for fund-raising, people all over the world started posting out the donation page from our website,” she says.
“Invest in Highlander,” Steez tells Teen Vogue. “If you care about activism and you care about organizing happening in the United States and beyond, you have to give back to the Highlander Center’s sustainability.” Financial support isn’t the only way to help out, either; Henderson says the center wants the public to know they’re OK, to follow along for updates, and to keep sharing stories of the center’s impacts.
“We ask for people just to tell their Highlander stories,” Henderson says. “This is a moment to remember why Highlander is so important and has been for almost 87 years. We're getting inundated with social media posts, emails, voice mails, and text messages about how people's lives were transformed by being connected to this place and the people that represent it. That's been a healing balm.”
It will take time to recover from the fire, but Highlander has also been going ahead with business as usual. In fact, the fire didn’t even stop an event taking place on the Highlander Center’s campus that day. Henderson says that on the day of the fire, “people from all over the region” still came together for "a central Appalachian prison justice assembly” to talk about prison abolition and supporting people in prisons, jails, and detention centers in Appalachia.
“The question got called, like, do we cancel?” Henderson remembers. “We talked to the folks and they were like, ‘Absolutely not. We still need to do this work, and if ever there was a time to be at Highlander, it's right now.’” She said dozens attended the event as planned.
“It's a very, very sacred space,” Henderson tells Teen Vogue. She says messages of support have been coming in from all across the globe, adding, “What they have most consistently said is very similar to what [Highlander founder] Myles [Horton] said: ‘You can padlock a building, but you can't padlock an idea.’”
Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: 6 Civil Rights Activists You Should Know About
Written by BriteHeart
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