In the 1940s, a group of students from Morehouse College arrived from Atlanta to work on tobacco farms in Connecticut’s Farmington Valley as part of a student aid program.
Even Simsbury, a predominantly white New England town, was a far cry from overt segregation and repressive Jim Crow laws these two summers. For at least one of the students – a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. – the experience would help shape his life and, with it, the course of history.
The summers served as a kind of awakening for the impressionable youth, who briefly saw better treatment for blacks.
In their spare time, the young black farmhands could attend integrated dances and sit alongside the town’s white residents at the movies, church, and lunch counter at Doyle’s drug store and restaurants in nearby Hartford.
“I never thought that anyone of my breed could eat anywhere, but we ate in one of the best restaurants in Hartford,” wrote young Martin to his mother from the farm.
The dream of equality, which he famously spoke of years later, was something he first saw here in Simsbury, an experience that helped reshape his worldview and “sparked an inescapable drive to serve society” he wrote later.
“For him and many of the students it is the first time they have left the south and away from segregation,” said Prof. Clayborne Carson of Stanford University, executive editor of “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.” first published was Dr. King’s teenage letters home. “That was a realization for him, and that was true for many other students.”
Despite the important role the farm played in Dr. It remained largely a footnote to King’s life for biographers and was never honored with a historical marker. In recent years, the farm seemed destined to grow into a planned community with hundreds of homes.
But thanks to a random series of events and a creative conservation deal, the property known locally as Meadowood is now being preserved as a public open space and nominated for historic designation.
The history of historic preservation began with a local high school history project that made national headlines and an officer stumbled upon a stray “MLK” folder among office files and began pushing for a conservation contract.
The deal was nearly derailed by the city, but a flurry of public support – including a frantic petition drive and a last-minute public vote – helped save the property and secure Simsbury’s place in civil rights history.
For Dr. King began the experience with an insightful train ride from Atlanta to Simsbury in 1944 as a 15-year-old freshman at Morehouse.
“After we got past Washington, there was no discrimination at all,” he wrote to his father, adding to the North: “We go wherever we want and sit wherever we want.”
It was the first of several letters home describing the liberating experience of escaping the secluded south while working on the Cullman Brothers farm on the outskirts of town to harvest shadow tobacco, a major crop in Farmington Valley at the time. He returned three years later for another summer.
He was housed in a dormitory on the farm with other male students, got up early and worked long days in the heat, cutting and hanging tobacco to dry in cave-like barns, some of which were still on the property.
To relax, the working students drove into town and on Sunday to one of the local churches.
Not all treatments were positive. In the summer of 1947, Dr. King’s singing voice – the rich baritone the world knows today from his lyrical, rousing speeches – the ear of Garland Martin, the choirmaster of the First Church of Christ in Simsbury. He spontaneously invited the youth went to the balcony one Sunday to join the choir, ignoring the grumbling of some church members that a black singer was joining the all-white group.
“He said, ‘I don’t care what color he is as long as he can sing,'” said Kevin Weikel, a current pastor for the Church, adding that Mr. Martin and his family have started getting the young king over for lunch.
At 15, he was selected as a religious leader to lead his compatriots into discussions about the injustices blacks faced at home.
It was that second summer in Simsbury that sparked the “inescapable urge to serve society” that drove him to the clergy, he wrote later in his application to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. “In short, I felt a sense of responsibility that I couldn’t escape.”
For decades, the Simsbury summers remained an obscure part of Dr. King’s biography. But they were part of the city’s history for a long time.
“I grew up in this town and kept hearing that Martin Luther King might have come here with some tobacco workers, but no one seemed to have any other documents,” said Richard Curtiss, a history teacher at Simsbury High School, who in 2010 dropped some of his students research the subject by examining local archives, interviewing elderly residents, and reviewing materials at the nearby Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum.
The result was “Summers of Freedom,” a short documentary that was featured on the CBS Evening News and other major media outlets, although developers had a plan to convert the site into about 300 apartments.
In 2016, Catherine Labadia, an official with the state’s Historic Preservation Office, moved some older files around her Hartford office and noticed a stray folder that was only labeled “MLK.”
“I work in the preservation of monuments and I didn’t know anything about it,” said Ms. Labadia, who began to look at the contents of the folder through Dr. Read Kings Summers in Simsbury. She researched the property and found that development that would replace the farm was still in progress. The proposal had been launched more than a decade earlier but failed in part due to stiff opposition from city officials, lengthy legal proceedings, and a volatile property market.
Ms. Labadia secured a grant to investigate the site, generating another round of press attention. This was noticed by the Trust for Public Land, which helped build buildings around Dr. King’s childhood home in Atlanta to create the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.
In 2019, the Trust for Public Land and INDUS, the real estate company that owns the property, began discussing a possible sale. By that spring, they had worked out a complex $ 6 million deal to transfer the property into city ownership, with city funding and a mix of other government agencies, public grants, and a charitable foundation. The Trust for Public Land also raised approximately $ 500,000 to cover costs related to the land business.
But the purchase was nearly derailed in May when the city’s finance committee suddenly declined to put the $ 2.5 million city funding for the property up for public vote because it was concerned about other upcoming capital projects. With just a few days to reverse this, some residents in this city of 25,000 people started a last-minute petition drive. They spread across the neighborhoods and collected nearly 1,600 signatures to get the issue on the ballot papers. It was then passed with more than 80 percent approval.
“It was really amazing to see how many people came out,” said Eric Wellman, the city’s first polling officer. “I didn’t think you could get 80 percent of Americans to agree on anything.”
Its supporters plan to open a historic site that will complement the small number of them dealing with black history and culture. Only 2 percent of the sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places focus on the experiences of black Americans, said Diane Regas, president and chief executive officer of the Trust for Public Land.
Much of the trust’s work, including at the Meadowood site, was supported by funding from Sony Pictures Entertainment, through a Racial justice initiative which partly tries to accelerate the protection of black historical sites.
The funding has helped the Trust for Public Land protect and expand the Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas, the oldest surviving black settlement west of the Mississippi, and Forks of the Road, Mississippi, an important slave market in the 19th century.
Supporters hope Meadowood will be added to the Connecticut Freedom Trail, a network of sites that celebrate the achievements of African Americans in the state and promote heritage tourism.
Most of the property will be divided into open space and farmland leased to local farmers, with 24 acres reserved for urban use, possibly as sports fields and an additional two acres for a historic site, including several barns.
The trustee and government officials said they are consulting black scholars and color communities to mark the site and highlight its historical significance.
“These places are central to telling the entire history of our country,” but they are often neglected or threatened by development, said Ms. Regas. “And if people forget these stories, the places and the history will be forgotten and the sites will disappear.”
As for Ms. Labadia, keeping the Meadowood site has never been an issue.
“I said, ‘No way – this land needs to be passed on,” Ms. Labadia recalled. “’We cannot lose this legacy.’ I became obsessed. “