Have you ever heard of Zilphia Mae Johnson Horton?
Don’t feel bad. Most people in Paris don’t know about one of the most famous people raised in the community. But that may change after a book about Horton’s life comes out some time next year.
The author of the book, Kim Ruehl of Ashville, N.C., was in Paris recently to do research on Horton and her home town. Ruehl said she writes about folk music for a living and started seeing Horton’s name crop up some time ago.
“I started doing research about songs, especially ‘movement’ songs and I kept seeing her name,” Ruehl said while visiting Paris. “I thought I’d like to read more about her and that was 10 years ago.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “Zilphia Mae Johnson Horton was an influential educator, folklorist, musician, and social justice activist who collected, adapted, performed, and promoted the use of folk songs and hymns in the labor and civil rights movements, notably “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome.” These two, respectively, became labor and civil rights movement anthems. She served as the first cultural director of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee-the precursor of today’s Highlander Research and Education Center, founded by her husband Myles Horton-until her untimely death in 1956.”
Horton died from acute kidney failure from uremic poisoning following accidental ingestion of a typewriter cleaning solution, the article states.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “Zilphia Horton pioneered the mobilization of folk culture resources, especially music, in the service of social justice causes. Her multifaceted work spanned a wide range of expressive arts, all of which aimed at educating and empowering oppressed people. Pete Seeger recalled the talent and temperament she brought to this work, and Lee Hays credited her with motivating him to become a folk singer.”
Put simply, Horton’s work gave voice to movements working for civil rights, women’s rights, workers rights and social justice.
Horton left Paris after trying, some say, to organize workers in her father’s coal mine. That caused her father Guy Horton to disown her and she left for Tennessee. Others say she was disowned because her father caught her smoking. The split between the two was so bad that Zilphia isn’t listed among the survivors in her father’s obituary.
Whatever the reason, Zilphia left Paris and walked into history.
While in Paris, Ruehl visited and got information from the Paris Coal Miners Memorial and Museum, walked around (but couldn’t enter) the house where Horton grew up and went to Ozark and the University of the Ozarks, where Horton went to college when it was known as the College of the Ozarks.
“The visit was good,” Ruehl said. “It was incredibly helpful to be able to spend some time in Paris, learning local history from locals, getting a feel for the culture of the area and eating some excellent BBQ. Larry (Connelly of Paris) took me up to the house and we walked around the yard but nobody was home to let us inside. The next day, I drove up to Clarksville and Spadra, visited the University where she studies, and got a feel for the town where she spent the other half of her childhood. All told, it was a productive time.”
Asked what she thought about Zilphia Horton, Reuhl put her life in some perspective.
“I think she was a remarkable person who, as her sister Bonnie said, probably knew she was remarkable and was determined to use her privilege and talent for the greater good. As has been true throughout my research (which I began in 2010), I’m fascinated by her determination to put her artistic impulses to use. She was tall and pretty with great charisma, which means she could have become an entertainer and had a fantastic career. But she was more motivated by her moral compass.
“Her personal letters all indicate she had a vivacious passion for people and a deep intellectual curiosity,” Ruehl said. “Had she lived beyond age 46, she would have likely become a major force for cultural organizing during the peak of the civil rights movement. A lot more people would have been moved by her creativity and her infectious spirit — something we could use more of these days. I know that my research for this story has helped me become more aware of what all of us are capable of contributing to make the world a better place. Her story has opened my eyes and heart much wider, and hopefully this book will spread her story a little further into the world.”