“People Where They Are” and the New American History Play

Written by Gina M. Di Salvo

We are living through a time of the American history play. Our theatres are producing stories set in great or forgotten moments of transformation. From the Tony-award winning Hamilton: An American Musical, set during the Revolution and the early years of the Republic, to the regional theatre hit Alabama Story, set in Montgomery during the late 1950s and produced here at the Clarence Brown Theatre in 2018, our new history plays have been revisiting, scrutinizing, and celebrating American history as a site of stories that confronts us with great truths. A history play is different than history. As Aristotle explains, drama is a more serious thing than history because history is about what actually happened and drama is about what could happen. It is in that conditional could that we are met with great truths that move us and sometimes even hold up a mirror to who we are. To put it in Shakespearean terms, the St. Crispin’s Day speech and death of the Duke of York in Henry V are not accurate representations of the military history of the Battle of Agincourt, but they teach us something about comradery and loss.

Though it might be harder to discern in a play that takes place in Tennessee in 1955 than in France in 1415, People Where They Are by Anthony Clarvoe is very much a history play. Set at Highlander during its expansion into the civil rights movement, the play is populated with characters who reflect labor and civil rights organizers from the middle of the twentieth century. The six main characters, embodied by the MFA Acting Class of 2020, might have never met in historical actuality, but when we see them encounter one another at Highlander in this play, we reencounter the hard truths and great struggles of the past. We meet those truths in the song, dance, attraction, reproach, listening, antagonism, and soul building of the six characters as much as in the extraordinary conditions of oppression that determine the context of the play. The play is as much about people in all their admirable and imperfect complexity as it is about where they are located in history. At the same time, this play powerfully excavates a history of organizing and idealism facilitated by the Highlander Center for over 85 years in Tennessee.

Monteagle, 1932

The Highlander Folk School opened in 1932 in Monteagle, Tennessee. Along with Don West and Jim Dombrowski, Myles Horton founded Highlander as a school for working adults – miners, farmers, millworkers – that would respond to the needs and interests of those living and working in the region. Inspired by the Danish folk school model, Highlander quickly developed into a school that valued the experiences of its students. The school never depended on expertly educated teachers imparting their knowledge to students. Rather, the sharing of experiences at Highlander among participants from different communities and different walks of life allowed them to understand their common struggles and strategizes for improving their communities. As Highlander began to take in residential students and develop its curriculum, Horton visited a lengthy miner’s strike in Wilder, Tennessee and organized relief for the miners and their families. There he was arrested for “coming here and getting information and going back and teaching it.” Horton’s involvement with the strike commenced Highlander’s indefinite association with organized labor and, subsequently, detractors’ accusations of subversive and communist politics. By the late 1930s, Highlander became actively involved in labor strikes and worked with unions to train a generation of labor organizers.

While Highlander had been integrated since the 1940s, the school became more active in training civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. During this time, Highlander held workshops to enable African-American leaders to return to their home communities and run adult education programs.  Septima Clark was a long time teacher and community leader who was hired as Highlander Education Director and in that position helped create the citizenship schools that supported people to be able to register to vote. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African-Americans in the South were subject to literacy tests among other obstacles to suffrage. The students of the school in this era also included Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) and the notable civil rights activist, Rosa Parks. Mrs. Parks, a long time NAACP member and activist in her home community, participated in a Highlander workshop before her arrest for civil disobedience on a Montgomery bus in 1955, which set off the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a series of court cases that resulted in the eventual desegregation of city buses. In a 1973 interview, Mrs. Parks credited the school “on the mountain” as the first place she encountered “people who believe completely in freedom and equality for all.”

From its origins, Highlander empowered individuals – often without formal education or access to financial support – to return to their home communities and become leaders in organizing, educating, and agitating for change. At the crux of the Highlander model is the belief that participants can learn from each other’s experiences. In addition, Highlander cultivated an atmosphere of community through its shared traditions: listening on rocking chairs, eating together at long tables, singing, and square dancing. Zilphia Horton, in collaboration with other musicians, such as Guy and Candie Carawan and Pete Seeger, innovated new versions of “We Shall Overcome,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” that set the tempo for the trainings, marches, and demonstrations of the era. The singing of these and other songs proved integral to training and organizing.

Throughout the late 1950s, Highlander had been subject to increased accusations of communism due to its exceptional integration, which violated the law, and involvement with the civil rights movement. In 1959, in the process of an investigation by the state of Tennessee, the Monteagle school was raided during an integrated workshop. Authorities soon located a beer refrigerator that was stocked out of a common fund which, the State of Tennessee claimed, meant that Highlander engaged in commercial activities in violation of its non-profit status.  The State revoked the school’s charter, confiscated the entirety of the land and property, and auctioned it off. Not one to be discouraged, Horton responded, “You can padlock a building, but you can’t padlock an idea,” and re-founded Highlander immediately.

Knoxville, 1961 and New Market, 1972

After the loss of the original school in Monteagle, Highlander staff immediately reorganized and moved the newly rechartered Highlander Research and Education Center to Knoxville in 1961. Although the city we live in hosted Highlander for a decade, it proved an inhospitable host. As the Highlander Center on Riverside Drive facilitated more civil rights work, it also suffered threats, vandalism, gunshots, firebombs, and the harassment of the Ku Klux Klan as well as urban renewal that took the house and property. By 1972, as Highlander began to respond to environmental safety and anti-poverty efforts in Appalachia, the Center also required a new location that would allow for the expansion of programs. In that year, Highlander made its final move to New Market, where it continues to help communities, especially those in Appalachia and the South, learn how to address changing social and economic justice issues, such as civil rights, poverty, education, immigration, the environment, and LGBTQ rights.

As always, Highlander has been forced to contend with detractors and attackers. In the early morning of March 29, 2019, the main administrative building of the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market was set on fire and authorities subsequently identified a white supremacist symbol on the premises. A number of important historical documents were lost in the fire, although the majority of Highlander’s archives were safe. Highlander went on to host scheduled workshops within days of the fire and has continued to do so. True to its nature, Highlander is both rebuilding and building for the future. There are plans to rebuild the administrative building and they have broken ground on the new Septima Clark Learning Center. Although the Clarence Brown Theatre commissioned People Where They Are before the fire at Highlander earlier this year and multiple racist and anti-Semitic acts at University of Tennessee over the past two years, this new American history play speaks to the present and demands that we work together to address our common problems.

Many of our audiences will want to know more about labor and civil rights organizing, the history of justice movements in Appalachia and the South, and the Highlander Center for Research and Education. After select performances of the play, Wess Harris will be selling his books on Appalachian organizing near the Connie West portrait exhibit in the Clarence Brown Theatre lobby. Half of the proceeds from the book sales will be donated to Highlander. In addition, the following list of books is a good place to get started:

• Candie and Guy Carawan, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement
Through Its Songs

• Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

• Septima Clark, Ready from Within: Septima Clark & the Civil Rights Movement

• John Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence & Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley

• John Glen, Highlander: No Ordinary School, 2nd edition

• Myles Horton (Dale Jacobs, ed.), The Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change

• John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

• James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism

• David Spener, We Shall Not Be Moved (No Nos Moverán): Biography of a Song of Struggle

• Lee Staples, Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, 3rd edition

• Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

• Zaragosa Vargas, Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in
Twentieth-Century America

• Eliot Wigginton, ed. Refuse to Stand Silently By: An Oral History of Grass Roots Social Activism in America, 1921-64