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Kesha Lambert

Saving the site of a little-known chapter in civil rights history

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On a warm afternoon in early fall, red-tailed hawks swooped low over fields of soybean on Firetown Road in Simsbury, Connecticut. Four abandoned barns, their weathered facades gleaming silver in the sun, stood by the roadside, vestiges of the Connecticut River Valley’s once-thriving tobacco farms.

You wouldn’t know by looking at it, but this peaceful, unassuming place—a mix of meadows and woodlands on the outskirts of Hartford—has a fascinating story to tell. It was on this property that a teenaged Martin Luther King Jr. spent summers as a field hand alongside migrant workers from around the country. Historians say the experience shaped King’s worldview in important ways. But today, the story of his time in this valley isn’t well known, even by many locals.

ct_meadowood_09202020_022Photo Credit: Kesha Lambert

And until recently, that history was at risk of being lost altogether. This 288-acre property has been owned by a developer, and any plans to build on the land could mean knocking down the historic barns and paving over farmland. But with help from The Trust for Public Land, locals and historians are working on a plan to save this special place, and share its remarkable history with the world.

In 1944, while much of their regular workforce was away at war, tobacco growers in Connecticut recruited seasonal laborers from around the country to keep their farms running. The summer before his freshman year at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, King joined a group of his fellow students who ventured north to work in these fields. He returned three years later for another stint as a farmhand, living in a dormitory on the farm and venturing into downtown Simsbury and the city of Hartford to go to church, dine in restaurants, and watch movies at the local theater.

historic photo of SimsburyMain Street, Simsbury, ConnecticutPhoto credit: Wikipedia

It might sound like a pretty ordinary way for an American teenager to spend his summers, but for King and his classmates at the historically Black Morehouse College, it was transformative. In letters home during those summers, King described the liberating experience of getting out from under the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. “I had never thought that any person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate at one of the finest restaurants in Hartford,” he wrote to his mother.

“It was a crucial time of his life,” said Dr. Clayborne Carson, the Martin Luther King Centennial Professor of History at Stanford University and founding director of the university’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. “It was the first time he was out of the South for an extended time. So he really experienc[ed] places where southern-style segregation didn’t exist. And that was impressive for him.”

In the Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., published in 1998, King marveled at the freedoms he experienced during his trips to the North. “After that summer in Connecticut,” he wrote, “it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation.”

Despite the property’s captivating history, there has never been anything at the site to mark its importance. “Not many people realize that Martin Luther King Jr. spent time in Connecticut,” says Honor Lawler with The Trust for Public Land. “In part I think that's because until now, there has been no formal place that celebrates that.” In the 1980s, the dormitory King stayed in burned to the ground during a training exercise for volunteer firefighters; that was before his time in Simsbury became widely known after his letters were made public in the 1990s.

To preserve the history that remains—and ensure that future generations have a chance to explore it for themselves—The Trust for Public Land is part of a coalition working to protect the property from development and restore some of its historic barns. Eventually, supporters hope to install signage about the site's history in front of the remaining barns.

ct_meadowood_09202020_293Historic barns at Meadowood, Simsbury, ConnecticutPhoto credit: Kesha Lambert

It’s part of a broader movement throughout the state to recognize and remember this little-known chapter in civil rights history. Once protected, the land could be included in the Connecticut Freedom Trail, a network of sites associated with Black history across the state. Launched in 1996, the trail includes more than 145 places, including burial sites, houses, churches, schools—even a battlefield and whaling ship. On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday this year, the Simsbury Free Library will open a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of his summers in the town. And about a decade ago, a group of Simsbury High School history students researched and produced a 14-minute documentary called “Summers of Freedom: The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. in Connecticut.”

The Trust for Public Land has a contract to buy the property—known locally as Meadowood—and transfer ownership to the Town of Simsbury. It’s the latest chapter in the organization’s ongoing efforts to preserve places that help tell the story of Black life in America—reminders of the lessons our history has to offer, and a connection to our nation’s shared heritage.

Since 1980, The Trust for Public Land has helped the National Park Service save and restore many of buildings in around King’s childhood home in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park is now one of Atlanta’s most popular destinations, welcoming roughly a million visitors a year to visit the home where Dr. King was born in 1929, the tomb where he’s buried, and the church where he preached his first sermon and was ordained as a minister at just 19 years old.

ga_mlk_05212017_08Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta, GA.Photo Credit: Christopher T. Martin

According to Catherine Labadia, a staff archaeologist with the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office, the farm fields in Simsbury may have been where King “found his future calling as a minister.” In Connecticut Preservation News, Labadia described how King honed his skills as a preacher, leading prayers and giving sermons to the other students on the farm. Labadia’s office has received a grant from the National Park Service to research and highlight King’s connection to the state.

“Although Connecticut also was characterized by racial and social inequalities,” Labadia wrote, “King saw a situation that was better than where he came from and, with his youthful passion, a vision for a better future.”

Comments

william yaroch
Please preserve and mark this site. We need to know about things like this.
Iris Preston
I was born and lived in connecticut and had no idea of MLK's history there
David Klinge
I never knew this story until now -- thank you for teaching me an important lesson!
Wendy Wish
Thank you for the illuminating story and for working to preserve this historical land. Also, thank you for what you do to preserve the nation's public lands.

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