(AP) – – The call came in at 6 a.m. last Friday. The main office of the renowned Highlander Research and Education Center was engulfed in flames.
Highlander’s co-executive director, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, sped over to the site, a 106-acre farm, 25 miles east of Knoxville, Tenn., at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. By the time she arrived, the building had collapsed, but firefighters were still putting out the flames.
In the days following the blaze, the local sheriff said the fire may have been intentionally set, after a “symbol connected to the white power movement” was found spray-painted in the parking lot. In a sign of growing concerns about such acts, on Thursday (April 4), FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress that white supremacy is a “persistent, pervasive threat” to U.S. security.
Henderson took the news in stride.
Though she received no warnings that white supremacists might be targeting the center — known for training many of the leaders of the civil rights movement — she knew full well the center’s history.
“We’re an 87-year-old organization,” she said. “This isn’t the first storm we’ve weathered.”
Henderson, the center’s first black female co-director, was back at work this week — in one of the center’s other buildings.
Investigators have yet to allow her to sift through the remains to assess what was lost, though most of the center’s archives are safe at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Other historical documents are at the Southern Historical Collection and Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But the center’s commitment to a range of issues — immigration, prison reform, the environment, worker rights, racial, gender and sex discrimination — have made it a target for hate groups before.
“This isn’t disconnected from a long legacy of the targeting of Southern movement infrastructure,” Henderson said.
Indeed, the Highlander Center is inextricable from the history of the South.
“All the progressive issues of the nation that often bypass the South were held up like a beacon of light by the Highlander Center,” said William Ferris, professor of history emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Highlander Center was opened in 1932 during the height of the Great Depression by co-founder Myles Horton, a Tennessee native strongly influenced by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, with whom he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Niebuhr wrote the initial fundraising letter to establish the school.