Legendary Civil Rights Organization Fights to Preserve its Own Legacy, Opposes Nomination to Register of Historic Places

Highlander Center says Tennessee Preservation Trust is unfit steward of legacy

August 5, 2022, New Market, TN – A Tennessee organization with a storied history of training civil rights and social justice leaders is fighting for control of its own legacy. The Highlander Research and Education Center filed a petition with the National Park Service this week opposing the nomination of part of its original site to the National Register of Historic Places because the nomination form was prepared by the Tennessee Preservation Trust, a private entity that purchased the library property and other parcels that comprised Highlander’s original campus. 

The trust did not include the Highlander Center in the process of nominating the original library site. The Tennessee Preservation Trust, Highlander says, is an unfit steward of Highlander’s legacy, as it lacks any connection to the organization or to the civil rights movement more broadly. The Trust is better known for its efforts to preserve Civil War history. 

“Highlander's original name, Highlander Folk School, and site was stolen by the State of Tennessee through state-sponsored anti-Blackness and red-baiting, but our work has never ceased. We applaud efforts to preserve and tell the stories of social movements of the South and Appalachia, but we believe deeply in people from those movements telling the stories themselves,” said Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele, Co-Executive Director of Highlander. 

“The real meaning of this history,” added Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Highlander’s Co-Executive Director and the first Black woman to hold the role, "is the ongoing impact of state and white supremacist violence against our people and social movements, and Highlander's continued legacy over 90 years is not the Tennessee Preservation Trust’s story to tell without Highlander’s consent.” 

Despite facing numerous threats over the years – including an arson attack in 2019 by assailants who spray-painted a white nationalist symbol next to a building they had burned down – Highlander has continuously served as a movement-building meeting spot and training ground for civil rights and other social justice activists. Rosa Parks did a two-week stint there before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and white supremacist leaders used a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Highlander workshop to target the “communist training school” in the 1950s.

The state of Tennessee attempted to close Highlander in 1961 due to alleged “subversive” activities and forced the center from its first campus in the Summerfield community just outside of Monteagle. The very next day, Highlander renamed itself Highlander Research and Education Center and reopened at a new location in Knoxville. In 1971, Highlander moved to its current headquarters in New Market. And today, now in its 90th year, Highlander continues its work advancing freedom fights in the U.S. South and Appalachia, continuing to train thousands of grassroots organizers each year, and connecting Southern struggles with national and global campaigns for transformative justice in a time of crisis and upheaval. 

Done properly, historical preservation could be a way for Tennessee to honor Highlander’s legacy and begin to make amends. But given Highlander’s exclusion from the process, its leaders view the nomination not as a corrective action but as a continuation of threats to Highlander’s legacy and ongoing impact. The Tennessee Preservation Trust did not inform Highlander of its plans to seek the library’s inclusion on the National Register, even as it lifted text from Highlander’s website for the nomination form. 

Highlander’s petition to the National Register of Historic Places makes the case that approval would undermine federal and state efforts to promote diversity and equity through historic preservation. Federal regulations require National Register nominations to align with states’ preservation plans, and Tennessee’s includes an avowed commitment to racial diversity.  

“Approving the nomination of the Highlander Folk School Library in its current form would allow an elite, white-led institution to coopt and dilute the historical narrative of a Black, multiracial, poor, and working-class site,” said Jessica Vosburgh, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped prepare the petition. “This is the wrong way to honor Highlander’s legacy.”

Highlander's leaders argue that the Tennessee Preservation Trust’s nomination form violates another federal regulation: the requirement that it be “adequately documented” and “professionally correct.” The form includes a number of inaccuracies such as stating several times that Highlander was forced to close in 1959. In fact, other than a single building shut by court order, the Monteagle campus operated until 1961, and Highlander has never closed in its 90 years, despite forced location changes. 

“Highlander’s importance as a movement space for Black people and communities of color cannot be overstated. Its legacy is profound and must be protected,” said Miriam Nemeth, litigation director at Advancement Project National Office. 

Highlander is asking its supporters and other members of the public to submit their own unique written comments by September 1, 2022, at this Action Network website, to persuade the Keeper to reject the nomination, helping Highlander preserve its civil rights legacy. 

The Center for Constitutional Rights, the Advancement Project, and Crowell Moring, LLP are representing Highlander in the National Register of Historic Places nomination process, which the National Park Service administers. 

Read the submission here.

The Highlander Research and Education Center is a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South. Highlander works with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny. Since 1932, Highlander has centered the experiences of directly-impacted people in our region, knowing that together, we have the solutions to address the challenges we face in our communities and to build more just, equitable, and sustainable systems and structures. Learn more at www.highlandercenter.org. Follow the Highlander Center on social media @HighlanderCenter on Facebook, and Instagram, @HighlanderCtr on Twitter, and via Highlander’s View from the Hill Newsletter.

Advancement Project National Office is a next-generation, multi-racial civil rights organization. Rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice, we exist to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy. We use innovative tools and strategies to strengthen social movements and achieve high impact policy change. Visitwww.advancementproject.org.


The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.


Last modified 

March 7, 2023