The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, trade union organizer and educator Don West, Methodist minister Jim Dombrowski and others in Monteagle, Tennessee; after personal and collective journeys in organizing for labor and racial justice.
Horton, West and others met with coal miners during waves of industrialization “sweeping the rural South”; these meetings served as scaffolding for workers’ education programs that would be set up at the school. Horton and others had concrete ideas about their vision, being inspired from workers’ strikes, pushing against racism within the labor movement, visiting Danish folk schools, and studying with reformist sociologists and theologians who advocated for “folk” and “popular” schools, if not public education.
Highlander’s focus shifted towards racial justice in the wake of changes in the union movement after World War II such as inclusion of no-strike clauses and in shifting race relations of the South. With rumors of legal desegregation ahead, educators at Highlander wanted to use their labor and community organizing tactics, anticipating the need and demand for Black leadership.