No one was injured, but the fire destroyed the office, which housed what the center said was decades worth of historical documents, speeches, artifacts and other memorabilia from its history, including the era of the civil rights movement. The Wisconsin Historical Society, which is the center’s official archivist, said that a majority of its archives are safe.
“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,” it wrote.
The center, which consists of about 10 buildings on a 200-acre campus in New Market, 20 miles east of Knoxville, was the site of a blaze that started early Friday morning. By 6 a.m., the center’s main office building was engulfed in flames.
The fire is being investigated by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and state fire investigators. Its origin has not been determined.
Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey, who did not return a request for comment, told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the graffiti was a hashtag-like symbol discovered at the scene Friday.
“It’s not a traditional, throw-it-in-your-face symbol that you would immediately recognize,” Coffey told the newspaper. “But it has been used by individuals in the past. We have seen this symbol associated with different groups.”
Chelsea Fuller, a spokeswoman for Highlander, told the Associated Press that the symbol “looks like a tic-tac-toe board."
White supremacist groups have made incursions into Tennessee, according to the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which tracks hate groups. A rock on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where students are encouraged to paint has been defaced by white supremacist graffiti multiple times in recent years. And prominent white nationalists have looked to expand their fringe movement among the school and its student body.
And the state has been the target for several white supremacist rallies, events and conferences in recent years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
The Highlander Center was founded in 1932 as the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle in southeastern Tennessee, whose purpose was organizing unemployed and working-class people, according to its website. It also fought segregation in the labor movement in the 1940s, which expanded into a broader fight against segregation in the 1950s. But those activities made it a target — of both federal and state investigators during an era of anti-communist paranoia, as well as segregationists and racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Rosa Parks attended a two-week workshop at the center on school desegregation in 1955, just a few months before she sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, which helped strike down segregation in public facilities in the South.
“It was my very first experience in my entire life going to a place where there were other people, and people of another race, and where we were all treated equally and without any tension or feeling of embarrassment or whatever goes with artificial boundaries of racial segregation,” Parks told interviewer Studs Terkel in 1973. “And I would like to say, too, that [Highlander founder] Myles Horton along with his staff and others there on the mountain did give me my first insight on the fact that there were such people who believe completely in freedom and equality for all.”
A book published by author John M. Glen about the center’s history noted that it faced consistent harassment that peaked at its location in Knoxville in the 1960s.
“Staff members endured . . . a KKK parade past the center, repeated vandalism, firebombs, burglaries, gunshots, and taped telephone messages branding Highlander as a “malignant organization” whose “red spiders” taught “hate, violence, and riots.”
The center, which did not respond to a request for comment, opened in its current location in 1972.