Myles Horton and The Highlander Folk School
Chapter III, Part 1
(Chapter III, Part 1 from Louise Spencer’s thesis “The Folk School: Education for Social Change,” 1982)

Myles Horton

1940s –– Myles with union members at Highlander

Myles and Zilphia Horton dancing (couple on right)

Eighty-eight years after the first folk school was reestablished in Denmark, Myles Horton opened the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Like Grundtvig, he saw the culture and people of his homeland in a state of serious decline and began searching for some means to save and revitalize the Appalachian area in which he was rooted.

The story of Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School is told in a book entitled Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander by Frank Adams with Myles Horton. The following account, unless otherwise noted, is from that source.

Myles Horton, born in Tennessee in l905, was the descendant of independent, forthright southern settlers. His parents reared their children to trust in the American idea that through education you can get ahead. As with most small town southern whites, much of their social life centered on the church.

After high school Myles attended Cumberland University and during the summer before his senior year the Presbyterian Church sent him out to organize vacation bible schools in the hills and hollows of Tennessee. Horton became convinced that the church was not meeting the educational needs of the people, nor could he find any other institution that was. He started asking parents of bible school students to evening meetings and to his amazement they came and shared mutual problems, asking Horton and each other for help in finding solutions. To make talking easier, Horton would get someone to start the meeting with songs, singing games or a retelling of familiar mountain tales. The people urged Horton to remain with them instead of returning to college but he felt inadequate in what he had inadvertently begun. He promised to return when he had something to offer.

After graduating from college, Horton took a job as student Y.M.C.A. secretary for the state of Tennessee. Taking the Y.M.C.A.’s statement of purpose—”developing Christian personality and building a Christian society”— literally, he went about arranging interracial meetings which conflicted with the mores and customs of the time and place. His resignation was accepted with relief.

Knowing the distress Horton was undergoing and hoping to prevent it from turning to cynicism, a congregational minister whom Horton deeply admired, urged him to attend Union Theological Seminary. He obtained the application for Horton and wrote a long recommendation to accompany it. Horton himself maintains that he was accepted at Union because they wanted somebody from the Southern mountains, a hillbilly, who played football, and not because he met any academic qualifications. He was their token Hillbilly. 41

For whatever reason, he was accepted at Union. His arrival is described later by a friend:

“This little hillbilly fellow, and that was what Myles was, wandered up to New York to Union Theological Seminary to get the word of the Lord. Instead, he ran into Reinhold Niebuhr, who was speaking with almost as much authority as the Lord, and apparently had a greater social conscience. 42

In addition to Niebuhr, Horton encountered three influential educators: Eduard Lindeman, Joseph K. Hart and George S. Counts. Counts‘ article in the May l932 The New Republic “Education for What?” greatly influenced American Education. Hart and Lindeman had both written books on American education. Hart had abandoned the idea of accomplishing social change through the education of children. He argued in his book Light from the North: The Danish Folk Schools—their Meanings for America , that adults had to learn how to live a new social and economic order before they could teach it. He felt that there was not a need for education to increase economic productivity but rather to use intelligently the wealth the nation had. He also addressed the problem of the effectiveness of traditional teaching and education:

“It was my task, to point out to students that education did not, and does not begin in schools, and that it never can be fully got inside schools: that it was, and is, a matter of the vital interrelationships and participations of persons and groups in communities; that the nature of the circumscribing community might have more to do with the ultimate outcome of education – at least for all but the very few — than had any specific item of learning; and that, therefore, if teaching was to have any real share in education, it must learn, somehow, to work inside the experiences of those being taught and not forever hang around on the periphery of experience, piously hoping that something might happen inside. 43

Lindeman, a Dane, had studied adult education in

Denmark and in the British trade unions and believed that if the short-term goal of self improvement could be made compatible with the long-term policy of social change then adult education could be a vehicle for social progress.

These educators and writers interested Horton but he did not yet see any course of action for himself.

After a year at Union, Horton went to the University of Chicago for a year to study with the sociologist, Dr. Robert .E. Park. Through him Horton came to accept crisis, conflict and mass movements as mechanisms for social progress and to see education more in terms of action than specific content. In Chicago, outside the classroom, Horton spent time with Jane Addams at Hull House and attended lectures and folk-dancing sessions at a Danish Lutheran Church [St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church] near the University. The pastor, [Enok Mortensen], who had been a folk-school teacher, encouraged Horton to visit the folk schools in Denmark. Niebuhr, who continued to counsel Horton to become ordained, nevertheless strongly endorsed his trip to Denmark.

Arriving there, Horton was disappointed in most of the folk schools he visited. They seemed to be looking only backward instead of toward the future. However, in one he visited, students were dealing with real problems of industrial workers and farmers as well as with international issues. He saw that the folk school with its emotional warmth and intimacy could be adapted to a labor school. Talking to former folk school directors he realized the value of each school having its own mission or purpose. He found these directors to be unconventional educators. They were men on fire –– eager to project reality as it ought to be. They were men eager to learn, men who saw in their students, in manual labor, and in community living, the potential for their own growth. His own role was clarified and from Copenhagen on Christmas night, 1931, he wrote:

“I can’t sleep but there are dreams. What you must do is go back...get a simple place...move’re there... the situation is there…you start with this and let it grow... it will build its own structure and take its own form. You can go to school all your life and you’ll never figure it out because you’re trying to get an answer that can only come from the people in the life situation. 44

And so Horton returned to the United States and the place he found was on Monteagle Mountain outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. Here, in one of the eleven poorest counties in the United States Highlander began. The school was almost immediately caught up in a miner’s strike and in workers‘ education.

By l936 they had three educational programs. A residential program of six weeks duration was held whenever enough students were gathered. It was for union members with potential in organizing or assuming leadership roles. They were usually selected by a vote of their Local. Also attending these sessions were college graduates interested in workers‘ education. A second program was called an extension program and provided a means for students to learn by experience the nature of social conflict. Extension students were enrolled for a year and roamed the south assisting strikers, running mimeo machines during organizing drives and teaching labor songs and group singing techniques. The third program centered in community life near the school and consisted of dramatic productions, piano lessons, square dancing and group entertainment. The three programs frequently intermingled.

As in the Danish folk schools, music was a most important part of the life at Highlander. In each case the songs drew directly from the life and souls of the singers. Zilphia Mae Johnson, a coal miner’s daughter, came to Highlander in 1935 and shortly after married Myles Horton. She had studied music at the College of the Ozarks and she directed most of the music and drama programs at Highlander in the early labor period. She taught union songs on picket lines and wrote and collected labor songs and chants that were used throughout the nation. Songs such as “No More Mourning, “Leadbelly’s Bourgeois Blues” and “We Shall Not be Moved” were recognized by her as having power and she adapted them and spread their usage. She and Pete Seeger, a frequent visitor at Highlander, modified the words and tune of a song two union members from Charleston, S. C. brought to Highlander and “We Shall Overcome” was born. In 1959 Guy Carawan joined the Highlander staff; he has been credited with infusing the civil rights struggle with the hidden power of the Negro spiritual. Through the-efforts of Highlander students, local governmental changes were made which were most beneficial to the area residents. However, most of these changes were overruled by the state government and Horton realized that in order for change to be permanent, support of a broad social movement was required. Consequently, in 1939, Highlander began concentrating more on education related to the civil rights issue.

(To be continued next issue which will focus on the profound effect Myles Horton and Highlander Folk School had on the Civil Rights movement.)


4l Transcript of Bill Moyer’s Journal. “The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly.” New York: WNET/Thirteen, P.B.S. Air date June S, 1981. p. 6.

42 Adams, Frank. Unearthinq Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. Winston Salem, North Carolina: John T. Blair, 1975. p. 11.

43 Ibid, p. 150.

44 Ibid, p. 24.

Note: Enok Mortensen describes meeting Horton in his book, Schools for Life, A Danish-American Experiment in Adult Education, Danish-American Heritage Society, p. 23. See also The Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change by Myles Horton; edited by Dale Jacobs, University of Tennessee Press, 2003.