An administrative building at the Highlander Research and Education Center burned in the pre-dawn hours Friday. The building was consumed by the time firefighters arrived shortly before six a.m., according to New Market Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Sammy Solomon.
The fire broke out hours after the center touted an expansion that was set to break ground next week. The 200-acre campus houses ten structures; nine were untouched by the Friday morning fire. However, the building that was destroyed contained decades of archival material, including “irreplaceable items,” according to Chelsea Fuller, a communications strategist working with Highlander.
The Highlander Center was created in 1932 in Monteagle, northwest of Chattanooga. Its initial goal was training unemployed rural residents to be more active in labor issues arising in the Depression-era South. The facility’s mission adapted along with the times, including environmental causes in the 1980s and ‘90s, and Latino and LGBT issues in more recent years.
From its earliest days, Highlander’s alignment with progressive causes drew the ire of conservatives, anti-communists and the FBI. In the 1950s Highlander joined the African-American civil rights movement, teaching black residents to read and participating in voter registration drives. In response, the Georgia Commission on Education branded the center a “communist training school” in 1957.
The state of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter in 1961. The center reorganized and re-established itself in Knoxville, moving to New Market in 1972.
What caused the fire is unclear. The News Sentinel reports the building was equipped with a fire alarm system that apparently failed to automatically notify local emergency responders. The state fire marshal’s office and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office are investigating.