Fire Burns Down Main Building of Historic Civil Rights Space, the Highlander Center

Photo: iStock

Early Friday morning, a building at the Highlander Research and Education Center, one of the nation’s oldest social justice institutions and training spaces, in New Market, Tenn., was engulfed in flames and burned to the ground.

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A press release from Highlander notes that only one building was burned (one out of 10 on the organization’s 200 acres), and that it housed the offices of the organization’s leadership and staff.

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and her co-executive director, the Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele, released a statement, noting that priceless artifacts and archives from the civil rights movement had been destroyed:

Highlander has been a movement home for nearly 87 years and has weathered many storms. This is no different. Several people were on the grounds at the time of the fire, but thankfully no one was inside the structure and no one was injured.

While we are physically unhurt, we are saddened about the loss of our main office. The fire destroyed decades of historic documents, speeches, artifacts and memorabilia from movements of all kinds, including the Civil Rights Movement. A fuller assessment of the damage will be forthcoming once we are cleared to enter the remains of the building.

We are grateful for the support of the many movements who are now showing up for us in this critical time. This has been a space for training, strategy and respite for decades and it will continue to be for decades to come.

Initially said to be a “brush fire,” that designation was changed to a “structure fire” by local officials, according to a contact at the site who spoke with The Root.

Although not as well known as the NAACP, SCLC or even the Urban League, Highlander, founded in 1932, played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement, training and supporting the work of a number of movement activists: Rosa Parks prior to her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Septima Clark, Anne Braden, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Hollis Watkins, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis.

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As of today, the center will not be closed and the scheduled events and training will continue.

Highlander will provide ongoing updates via its Facebook page.

Update: 4/29/19, 11:11p.m. EST: The fire at Highlander is currently being investigated by law enforcement.

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Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.