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Zilphia J. Horton

Zilphia J. Horton, activist and artist, was born in Paris, Arkansas, as Zilphia Mae Johnson. A graduate of the College of the Ozarks, she grew up determined to use her musical and dramatic talents on behalf of the southern working class. In January 1935 she attended a labor education workshop at the Highlander Folk School, located near Monteagle. Two months later she married Myles Horton, one of the founders of the school. Over the next two decades, as a Highlander staff member, Zilphia Horton directed workers' theatre productions, junior union camps, and various community programs; organized union locals; and led singing at workshops, picket lines, union meetings, and fund-raising concerts. Though disillusioned with the post-World War II retrenchment of organized labor, she nevertheless worked to revive the Farmers' Union in the South. In the 1950s she helped initiate Highlander's Citizenship School voter education project on the South Carolina Sea Islands and was instrumental in transforming "We Shall Overcome," originally a gospel hymn, into a civil rights anthem.

Sensitive to her roles as activist, artist, spouse, and the mother of two children, Horton sought to establish a balance in her life between independence and dependence, individualism and collective action, traditional gender expectations and creativity. Her efforts to achieve that balance were an experience shared by women at Highlander for most of its history. Horton died of uremic poisoning in 1956.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010