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Retracing the summers Martin Luther King Jr. spent in Simsbury.
By Amy Martin. Photos by Nefertari Pierre-Louis ’23
ar off the highway, in sleepy, suburban Simsbury, Connecticut, sit 288 acres of unused and unassuming farmland of great—if little-known—historical importance. Here, about an hour’s drive from Conn’s campus, a 15-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. felt that “responsibility from which I could not escape,” a responsibility that would forever change the course of history.
On a frigid day in December, photographer Nefertari Pierre-Louis ’23 and I drove to this farmland, where in 1944 King was just one of hundreds of teenagers and young men who came from the South to work for the summer on one of Connecticut’s many tobacco farms.
We parked in a field near two of the last few remaining tobacco barns on the property. It was quiet, save for the occasional passing car and the crunch of the dead grass beneath our feet. In the extreme cold but brilliant winter sunshine, it felt almost surreal. Spiritual, even.
For it was on this forgotten farmland that the seeds of a great dream began to take root.
Having just completed his junior year in high school, King arrived in Simsbury to work on a farm owned by Cullman Brothers Inc. He was recruited along with other Southern high school and college students to help ease a labor shortage brought on by World War II.
He planned to send the money he earned home to his parents, and he wrote to them at least five times between June and August of 1944. In those letters, published in 1992 in volume one of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., King discusses his application to, and later enrollment in, Morehouse College (King learned of his admission while on the farm), and he shares that he is serving as a religious leader for “107 boys,” hosting early Sunday-morning services in the boarding house.
The letters also detail other experiences that would prove transformative in the young King’s life.
Shortly after arriving in Connecticut, King wrote to his father, “On the way here we saw things I never anticipated to see. After we passed Washington, [there] was no discrimination at all. … We go to any place we want to and sit any where [sic] we want to.”
To his mother, King wrote, “We went to church on Sunday in Simsbury and we were the only negro[e]s there[.] Negroes and whites go to the same church.”
In another letter to his mother, King wrote about a trip to Hartford. “I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest restaurant[s] … And we went to the largest shows there.”
Clayborne Carson, the emeritus Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor of History at Stanford University and editor of both The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., told The New York Times that working in Simsbury was a crucial time in King’s life.
“For him and a lot of the students, it’s their first time out of the South and away from segregation,” Carson said. “That was a realization for him.”
In his autobiography, King describes in his own words how he felt after his train ride from Connecticut to Morehouse.
“It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta,” he wrote.
“After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation.”
King would return three years later for another stint on the farm. And in 1948, in his application to Crozier Theology Seminary, he wrote that it was during that first summer in Simsbury in 1944 that he “felt an inescapable urge to serve society.”
Still, the historical significance of the Simsbury farmland, known locally as Meadowood, remained largely confined to biographical footnotes and local folklore for decades. No historical markers exist on the property, and in 1984, before King’s letters were published, the boarding house on the property where he likely worked and led religious services was burned to the ground during a training exercise for firefighters.
Until recently, the farmland and its few remaining tobacco barns were slated to be cleared to make way for a 300-home subdivision. But a grassroots campaign was launched to raise awareness, led by the Simsbury Historical Society, Connecticut’s Historic Preservation Office and a group of local high school students who produced a 14-minute documentary that caught the attention of national news outlets.
In 2016, Catherine Labadia, Connecticut’s deputy state historic preservation officer and staff archaeologist, secured a grant from the National Park Service to study the places associated with King and the other students who came to work in Connecticut in the 1940s. In 2019 she began working with the nonprofit The Trust for Public Land to negotiate a sale with the realty company that owned the Meadowood property.
In the spring of 2021, a $6.5 million deal was reached, requiring $2.5 million in funding from the town of Simsbury, with the rest of the funding coming from various state and federal agencies, foundations, and private donations. After Simsbury residents petitioned to add the measure to the town ballot in May, the sale was approved by a resounding 87% of voters and finalized in September.
Nearly 130 acres of the newly protected land will now be designated for open space and recreation, 120 acres will be protected as working public farmland, and some two dozen acres will be set aside for future town needs. Two acres, which include the remaining barns, will be designated a historic site. Long-term plans include restoring the barns and installing signage and other elements recognizing the site’s historical significance. Supporters also hope the site will be listed on the Connecticut Freedom Trail and the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s a fitting tribute for the place where King “led his first Sunday service and where he experienced a motivational sense of equality,” according to Labadia.
“Although Connecticut also was characterized by racial and social inequalities, King saw [here] a situation that was better than where he came from and, with his youthful passion, a vision for a better future,” Labadia said.