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Saving the forgotten Connecticut farm that helped spark MLK's dream
Clippings from a Hartford Courant Magazine story from 1942 about Black tobacco laborers’ after-work activities, in Simsbury, Conn., Oct. 28, 2021. A farm in Simsbury that played an important role in young Martin Luther King Jr.’s life seemed fated for development into a planned community. But thanks to a serendipitous series of events and a creative conservation deal, it will now be preserved as public open space and nominated for historic designation. Yehyun Kim/The New York Times.

by Corey Kilgannon

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

Even in Simsbury, an overwhelmingly white New England town, those two summers were a far cry from the overt segregation and oppressive Jim Crow laws back 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.

The summers served as an awakening of sorts for the impressionable youth who briefly glimpsed better treatment for Black people.

In their downtime, the young Black farmhands could attend integrated dances and sit alongside the town’s white residents at the movies, at church and at the lunch counter at Doyle’s Drug Store and restaurants in nearby Hartford.

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

The dream of equality he would famously speak of years later was something he first glimpsed in Simsbury, an experience that helped reshape his worldview and prompted “an inescapable urge to serve society,” he would later write.

“For him and a lot of the students, it’s their first time out of the South and away from segregation,” said professor Clayborne Carson of Stanford University, senior editor of “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.,” which first published King’s teenage letters home. “That was a realization for him, and it was true for a lot of the other students.”

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

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

The preservation story began with a local high school history project that made national headlines and a public official who stumbled onto a stray “MLK” folder among office files and began pushing for a preservation deal.

The deal was nearly derailed by the town, but an outpouring of public support — including a frantic petition drive and a last-minute public vote — helped save the property and ensure Simsbury’s place in civil rights history.

For King, the experience began with a revelatory train ride from Atlanta to Simsbury in 1944 as a 15-year-old incoming Morehouse freshman.

“After we passed Washington, there was no discrimination at all,” he wrote to his father, adding that up North, “We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.”

It was the first of several letters home describing the liberating experience of escaping the segregated South as he worked on the Cullman Brothers farm on the edge of town harvesting shade tobacco, then a main crop in the Farmington Valley. He returned three years later for another summer.

Bunking with other male students in a dormitory on the farm, he would rise early and work long days in the heat, cutting and hanging tobacco to dry in cavernous barns, of which several still stand on the property.

For recreation, the student laborers would head into town and on Sunday to one of the local churches.

Not all of the treatment was positive. In the summer of 1947, King’s singing voice — the rich baritone the world now knows from his lyrical, stirring speeches — caught the ear of Garland Martin, the choir director at First Church of Christ in Simsbury. He spontaneously invited the youth up to the balcony one Sunday to join the choir, ignoring the grumblings from some church members about having a Black singer join the all-white group.

“He said, ‘I don’t care about the color of his skin, as long as he can sing,’” said Kevin Weikel, a current minister at the church, adding that Martin and his family began having the young King over for lunch.

Even at 15, he was selected as a religious leader to direct his fellow student farmhands in discussions about the injustices that Black people faced back home.

It was that second summer in Simsbury that prompted the “inescapable urge to serve society” that pushed him toward the clergy, he would later write in his application to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. “In short, I felt a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.”

For decades, the summers in Simsbury remained an obscure part of King’s biography. But they were long part of town lore.

“I grew up in this town, and I always heard that Martin Luther King may have come up here with some tobacco workers, but nobody seemed to have any other documentation,” said Richard Curtiss, a history teacher at Simsbury High School, who in 2010 had some of his students research the issue by examining local archives, interviewing older residents and reviewing materials at the nearby Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum.

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

In 2016, Catherine Labadia, an official in the state’s Historic Preservation Office, was moving some older files in her Hartford office and noticed a stray folder labeled only “MLK.”

“I work in historic preservation, and I didn’t know anything about this,” said Labadia, who began perusing the folder’s contents on King’s summers in Simsbury. She researched the property and found that the development that would replace the farm was still in the works. The proposal had been started more than a decade earlier but had not gotten underway partly because of fierce opposition by town officials, a prolonged legal action, and a fluctuating real estate market.

Labadia secured a grant to study the site, setting off another round of press attention. This was noticed by the Trust for Public Land, which had helped preserve buildings around 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 realty company owning the property, began discussing a possible sale. By this spring they had worked out a complex $6 million deal to transfer the property into town ownership, with funding from the town and a mix of other governmental agencies, public grants and a charitable trust. The Trust for Public Land also raised roughly $500,000 to cover expenses related to the land deal.

But the purchase was nearly derailed in May when the town’s finance board suddenly declined to put on the public ballot the $2.5 million in town funding for the property, concerned about other pending capital projects. With only days to reverse this, some residents began a last-minute petition drive in this town of 25,000. They fanned out across neighborhoods and gained nearly 1,600 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. It then passed with more than 80% approval.

“It was really amazing to see how many people came out,” said Eric Wellman, the town’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 that will add to the scant 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 at the Meadowood site, has been aided by funding from Sony Pictures Entertainment, which has a racial equity initiative that seeks in part 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 remaining Black settlement west of the Mississippi River, as well as Forks of the Road in Mississippi, a major slave market in the 1800s.

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

Most of the property will be divided among open space and farmland leased out to local farmers, with 24 acres reserved for town use, possibly as athletic fields, and an additional 2 acres for a historic site, including several of the barns.

The trust and government officials said they consult with Black scholars and communities of color on how to mark the site and highlight its historical importance.

“These places are central to telling the full history of our country” but are often neglected or threatened by development, Regas said. “And as people forget those stories, the places and the history are forgotten, and the sites disappear.”

As for Labadia, preserving the Meadowood site was never a question.

“I said, ‘No way — this land has to be passed on,’” Labadia recalled thinking. “‘We can’t lose this legacy.’ I became obsessed.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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