My new office at Columbia sits on the seventh floor of the northern wing of the Union Theological Seminary (UTS). Like many divinity schools, UTS has been facing declining enrollments in recent years, and so leases this side of the quandrangle to Columbia. I look out over spires and a well-manicured cloister that serves as a set for the television series Gossip Girl when the characters visit Yale. But other than the occasional film crew it’s very quiet here. More than one colleague refers to the place as “The Morgue.”
I was surprised, then, to realize that one of my heroes spent the early years of The Great Depression in these halls. Myles Horton, the co-founder of and life force behind Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Center for Research and Education) arrived at UTS in 1929. It was here that Horton studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, here where Horton found a community of public scholars and financial backers who would become so important to Highlander. Highlander, a social movement “halfway house” in the words of Aldon Morris, would become one of the first racially integrated spaces in Tennessee; in the eighty years since its founding it has been a training school, retreat center, and respite for generations of social movement leaders in the south and beyond.
UTS today seems a world away from Highlander. But the north wing of the seminary here may be coming back to life. In October, Columbia’s new INCITE (Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics) moved into the building. And thanks to the leadership of Denise Milstein, the sociology department’s revamped M.A. program will work to bridge the worlds of theory and practice through relationships with local community organizations.
You should come visit. But bring your tennis shoes. Here in New York, where no one owns a car, we have no choice but to make the road by walking.