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Martin Luther King: His Time in Simsbury, Connecticut

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia January 15, 1929. He took a test at the end of his junior year in high school to gain early admission to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. It was this summer, 1944, at the age of 15 he came north with a group of Morehouse students to work for the Cullman Brothers in their Simsbury area shade tobacco fields. (He returned to Simsbury to work for Cullman Bros. again in 1947 between his junior and senior years at Morehouse.)

Simsbury in 1944 was a rural community dependent on agriculture (dairy, corn and shade tobacco). The other industry in town was Ensign-Bickford that had been making safety fuse since 1836. Trains carried residents to Hartford and a horse and buggy was not uncommon among farm families. World War II service had taken much of the young male workforce.

The importation of labor from the South for seasonal agricultural work had a long history in Connecticut. The partnership between Morehouse College and the Cullman Bros. had benefits for each. Cullman was assured of a workforce that was motivated – their salaries went towards tuition at Morehouse and their board – and the chance to travel to a non-segregated area of the United States was attractive to college students – their train fare was paid if they stayed until the harvest was complete. Morehouse students had an opportunity to travel and interact with a community that allowed more personal freedom than most had ever encountered before.

The students lived in the Morehouse boarding house or camp on Firetown Road near Barndoor Hills. The actual structure has burned down and a housing development is now on the site. Here 100 or more black students spent the summer with teachers from their school. They rose at 6AM and worked in the fields Monday to Friday from 7AM to 5 PM or later with few breaks then return home for dinner that was served in a communal dining room. Dr. King and several other students recounted that extra food could be obtained by helping in the kitchen. The work was hot and exhausting as they worked under the gauze tents which held in the humidity and kept out any cooling breezes. After dinner there was time for baseball or basketball but most fell into their beds to get as much sleep as possible before starting over the next day. Lights were out at 10 PM.

Within this group in 1944 was a young man who was expected by his family to continue the family tradition of Baptist ministry. That summer in Simsbury he reverted to the name Michael King. (This was his birth name and he shared it with his father who changed both of their names to “Martin” several years before he came to Simsbury.) He had worked hard to convince his parents that he was old enough to go on such a journey. His friend Emmett Proctor (“Weasel”) also came north with him. His mother was still not convinced when she put him on the train for Hartford.

The journey was an eye opener for Dr. King. From Atlanta to Washington, D.C. the railroad cars were segregated and blacks were seated in the dining cars behind a curtain. From Washington north he could sit wherever he wished. In his autobiography he writes: “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation. 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 [racially restricted] car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.”

Despite the hot, dusty and exhausting work, summer in Simsbury was often described by the students as “the promised land.” On Friday evenings they might venture into town (although most students agree it was never past the Methodist Church and commercial block where Vincent’s sporting goods is today.) They could attend the movies at the Eno Memorial Hall or stop at Doyle’s Drug Store for their first opportunity to have a milk shake. (In the south they would not have been served at the white owned businesses.) Saturdays were usually spent in Hartford where they could shop, attend live musical shows and eat in any restaurant they chose. “Yesterday we didn’s work so we went to Hardford we really had a nice time there. I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ...ate in one of the finest resturant in Hardford. And we went to the largest shows there. It is really a large city,” Dr. King wrote to his mother on June 18 1944.

Sundays were first and foremost a religious day. Most of the students attended black churches in Hartford if they could. They found the Simsbury church services too plain and quiet. Those who did attend Simsbury churches are remembered as being very nice young men and always dressed in jackets and ties. Most frequently religious services were conducted in their dormitory because they were working a portion of Sunday. “We have service every Sunday about 8:00 and I am the religious leader we have a Boys choir here and we are going to sing on the air soon,” he wrote to his father on June 11 1944. Dr. King’s father wanted him to attend Hartford churches where he might be exposed to other black preachers. According to the Rev. King T. Hayes, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Hartford who was in the Morehouse program in 1946 and 1947 it was not uncommon for the young men to walk both ways to Hartford saving money on train fare. “We went to church in Simsbury and we were the only negro’s there Negroes and whites go to the same church,” King wrote his mother on June 11, 1944.

Dr. King left Simsbury on September 12, 1944 after the Hurricane of Sept. 8th to return to Atlanta. It had been a summer of freedom from his family as well as the racial constraints of the segregated south. While his presence as a fifteen year old tobacco worker went largely unnoticed by the residents of Simsbury and even most of those students who lived with him, the impact of a non-segregated Simsbury and Hartford made a lasting impression on the young man. The return was difficult for him and has been described by him as pivotal in laying the groundwork for his later civil rights work. “The first time I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self respect,” Dr. King writes in his autobiography.

The following two summers found Dr. King working as a Pullman porter and in a factory against his father’s wishes. In 1947 he returns with the Morehouse program and again works tobacco. A more mature student he is struggling with his call to the ministry. His friend, Emmett Proctor tells the story of Dr. King calling home from Simsbury to tell his mother that they have had a minor run-in with the police over a prank and cushioning the news by first announcing that he has decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. After his graduation in 1948 from Morehouse College, Dr. King attended Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He received a doctorate from Boston University in 1955. While it is documented that he returned to Hartford during his time as a civil rights leader, it is not known if he ever visited Simsbury again.





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