The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 in Grundy County, TN., with a mission to educate “leaders for a new social order.”
In 1954, the school adopted a voter education strategy originally begun on the South Carolina Sea Islands. “Citizenship Schools” were created to help African Americans learn to read so they could pass literacy tests required to become eligible to vote. Instead of “See Spot Run,” students were drilled on portions of the US Constitution.
A graduate of Highlander and a local activist, Mary Davis operated a beauty shop on Arbutus Avenue in the Union Heights neighborhood. When the last customer of the day was served, the beautician transformed into an educator.
Mary’s mission was to empower her community, twelve students at a time. Every evening they learned the language and meaning of the Founding Fathers. However, the final exam was not taken at the beauty shop, instead, success was realized when the County Registrar placed the student’s name on the voter registration list.
While Mary, her shop, and her school are memories, her legacy lives on in the community she enfranchised.