CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — It’s the organization that taught the Civil Rights movement to sing “We Shall Overcome.” Leaders in the Civil Rights movement attended its leadership schools. And now, the staff of The Highlander Research and Education Center say arson reduced its main building in New Market, Tennessee, to a pile of ash and blackened frames over the weekend.
On Tuesday, the center posted a statement on its Facebook page saying it found “a symbol connected to the white power movement” spray-painted in a parking lot near the building that was totally destroyed.
“While we do not know the names of the culprits, we know that the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across this nation, and globally,” the center said.
The Highlander Center did not respond to a request for comment.
During the Civil Rights era, Highlander — then located in Grundy County, Tennessee — served as a meeting place for many in the movement.
“Highlander was the first place and the first time that I had a meal with someone that was not African American and a meal with someone that was white,” Rep. John Lewis told Courthouse News.
While the civil rights leader and future lawmaker studied in Nashville, he made several trips to the school in Monteagle, a short distance away.
“It was the place where Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, many of the early Civil Rights workers met,” Lewis said. “Many of us, they came out of the sit-in movement and the freedom rides. But it was first organized as a place where black and white union workers came together, people that worked in the mines and places in Alabama and Tennessee and Mississippi and all across the South. People came to study and learn.”
Founded in the early 1930s as the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, the center attracted controversy, according to the Tennessee Historical Society.
It held workshops on school desegregation and community integration, for which it was accused of teaching communism.
In 1962, Tennessee revoked its charter and confiscated its land. In response, the organization re-chartered as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moved to New Market, Tennessee in the early 1970s.
News of the fire, Lewis said, “tells me that in spite of all of the changes, in spite of all of the progress that we’ve made, we still have a distance to go before we lay down the burden of racism, division and move closer to feeling what Dr. King called the beloved community.”
The fire destroyed the center’s main building two dozen miles east of Knoxville on Friday morning. In a video posted Friday afternoon that showed the remains of the building still smoking, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the center, said no one was hurt in the fire, although several important historical documents had been reduced to ash.
“We are not confused about how rarely people are ever charged with arson; however, we are surviving and monitoring these investigations,” the center’s Tuesday statement said.
Kevin Walters, communications director for Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office, said its fire investigations team is working to determine the cause of the fire with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.
Walters declined to comment further.
“It is an open investigation, and we do not comment about ongoing investigations,” he said.
The Jefferson County Sherriff’s department did not reply to a request for comment.