Saving the Connecticut farm that helped Spark MLK’s dream

In the 1940s, a group of students from Morehouse College came from Atlanta to work on tobacco farms in Farmington Valley, Connecticut, as part of a tuition assistance program.

Even in Simsbury, a predominantly white New England town, those two summers were a far cry from the blatant segregation and oppressive laws of Jim Crow at home. For at least one of the students – a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. – the experience would help shape his life and, by extension, the course of history.

Summers have served as a kind of wake-up call for impressionable young people who briefly glimpsed better treatment for blacks.

In their free time, young black farm laborers could watch built-in dances and sit alongside the city’s white residents at the movie theater, church, and lunch counter at Doyle’s Drug Store and nearby restaurants. Hartford.

“I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate at one of the best restaurants in Hartford,” young Martin wrote to his mother from the farm.

The dream of equality he would speak of years later was something he first glimpsed here in Simsbury, an experience that helped reshape his worldview and sparked “an inescapable need to serve society. He wrote later.

“For him and many of the students, this is the first time they’ve come out of the South and away from apartheid,” said Professor Clayborne Carson of Stanford University, editor of “The Papers of Martin. Luther King Jr. ”, which first published Dr. King’s Teenage Letters Home. “It was an awareness for him, and it was true for a lot of other students.”

Despite the farm’s important role in Dr. King’s life, it has largely remained a footnote to biographers and has never been honored with a historical marker. In recent years, the farm seemed destined to become a planned community with hundreds of homes.

But thanks to a series of fortuitous events and a creative conservation agreement, the property, known locally as Meadowood, will now be preserved as an open public space and proposed for historic designation.

The Preservation Story began with a local high school history project that made national headlines and an official who stumbled across a misplaced “MLK” folder among the office files and started making pressure for a preservation agreement.

The deal was nearly derailed by the town, but a wave of public support – including a frenzied petition campaign and a last-minute public vote – helped save the property and secure Simsbury’s place in the history of the civil rights.

For Dr King, the experience began with a revealing train trip from Atlanta to Simsbury in 1944 as Morehouse’s 15-year-old freshman.

“After passing Washington there was no discrimination,” he wrote to his father, adding that in the North, “We go wherever we want and we sit where we want.”

It was the first of several letters home describing the liberating experience of escaping the segregated South while working at the Cullman Brothers farm on the outskirts of town to harvest shade tobacco, then a main crop. in the Farmington Valley. He returned three years later for another summer.

Settled with other male students in a dormitory on the farm, he got up early and worked long days in the heat, cutting and hanging tobacco to dry in cavernous barns, several of which still stand on the property.

For recreation, student workers went to town and on Sundays to one of the local churches.

Not all of the treatments were positive. In the summer of 1947, the singing voice of Dr King – the wealthy baritone now known to the world through his lyrical and moving speeches – caught the ear of Garland Martin, choir director of the First Church of Christ in Simsbury. . He spontaneously invited young people up to the balcony on a Sunday to join the choir, ignoring the growls of some church members about a black singer joining the all-white group.

“He said, ‘I don’t care what color his skin is, as long as he can sing,” “said Kevin Weikel, a current minister at the church, adding that Mr. Martin and his family have started to have the young king over for lunch.

Even at age 15, he was chosen as a religious leader to lead his fellow student-farmers in discussions about the injustices blacks faced at home.

It was this second summer at Simsbury that aroused “the unmistakable desire to serve society” that pushed him to the clergy, he wrote later in his candidacy for Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. “In short, I felt a sense of responsibility that I couldn’t escape.”

For decades, summers at Simsbury have remained a dark part of Dr. King’s biography. But they have long been part of the traditions of the city.

“I grew up in this city and always heard that Martin Luther King might have come here with tobacco workers, but no one seemed to have any other documents,” said Richard Curtiss, professor of story at Simsbury High School, which in 2010 some of its students researched the matter by examining local records, interviewing older residents, and reviewing documents at the nearby Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum .

The result was “Summers of Freedom,” a short student-made documentary covered by CBS Evening News and other major media outlets, even as the developers pursued a plan to turn the site into around 300 homes.

In 2016, Catherine Labadia, an official with the state’s historic preservation office, was moving older files into her Hartford office and noticed a misplaced file labeled uniquely “MLK.”

“I work in the field of historic preservation and I didn’t know anything about it,” said Ms Labadia, who began browsing the contents of the dossier on Dr King’s summers in Simsbury. She researched the property and found that the development that would replace the farm was still underway. The proposal had been launched more than a decade earlier, but had not been launched in part due to fierce opposition from city officials, a protracted lawsuit and a fluctuating real estate market.

Ms Labadia got a grant to study the site, triggering another round of press attention. This was noticed by the Trust for Public Land, which had helped preserve the buildings around Dr King’s childhood home in Atlanta to create the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park.

In 2019, the Trust for Public Land and INDUS, the real estate company that owns the property, began discussing a possible sale. By the spring, they had struck a complex $ 6 million deal to transfer ownership to city ownership, with city funding and a mix of other government agencies, public grants and a charitable trust. The Trust for Public Land also raised around $ 500,000 to cover expenses related to the land transaction.

But the purchase nearly derailed in May when the city’s finance council suddenly refused to put the $ 2.5 million municipal funding for the property on public vote, concerned about other capital projects in waiting. With just a few days to turn the tide, some residents have launched a last-minute petition in the city of 25,000. They were deployed in the neighborhoods and collected nearly 1,600 signatures to put the question on the ballot. It was then passed with over 80 percent approval.

“It was really amazing how many people came out,” said Eric Wellman, the city’s first selectman. “I didn’t think you could get 80% of Americans to agree on anything.”

Its supporters plan to open a historic site to join the small number of them dealing with black history and culture. Only 2% of sites listed by the National Register of Historic Places focus on the experiences of black Americans, said Diane Regas, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land.

Much of the trust’s work, including on the Meadowood site, has been aided by funding from Sony Pictures Entertainment, which has a racial equity initiative which aims in part to accelerate the protection of black historic sites.

The funding helped the Trust for Public Land protect and expand the Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas, the oldest black settlement west of the Mississippi River, as well as the Forks of the Road in Mississippi, a major market for ‘slaves in the 1800s.

Supporters hope Meadowood will be added to the Connecticut Freedom Trail, a network of sites celebrating the achievements of African Americans in the state and promoting heritage tourism.

Most of the property will be divided between open space and farmland leased to local farmers, with 24 acres set aside for city use, possibly as sports fields and two additional acres for a historic site, including several barns.

The trust and government officials said they had consulted with black academics and communities of color on how to mark the site and underline its historical significance.

“These places are essential for telling the whole story of our country,” but are often overlooked or threatened by development, Ms. Regas said. “And as people forget these stories, places and history are forgotten and sites disappear.”

As for Ms. Labadia, the preservation of the Meadowood site has never been an issue.

“I said: ‘No way, this land must be passed on,’ remembers Mrs. Labadia thinking. “We cannot lose this legacy. I became obsessed.

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