Way Back When ... 1944
Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr. spent time in Connecticut in the 1940s? As Fairfield schools are closed on Monday to remember his legacy, here is a look back on his experiences in Simsbury, and how they may have shaped his life.
According to the Simsbury Historical Society, when King was just 15 years old he spent a summer in the town working for the Cullman Brothers in their tobacco fields. The year was 1944, and King had been admitted to Morehouse College. He came to Connecticut with a group of Morehouse students prior to the start of his freshman year. He returned again in 1947, the summer before his senior year.
At that time, according to the Historical Society, Simsbury “was a rural community dependent on agriculture (dairy, corn and shade tobacco). ... 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 worked long days and lived in either a boarding house or a camp. Dinner was served and the lights were out at 10pm. During that summer, King was known as “Michael,” his birth name.
King’s travels to the North made a big impact on him, particularly when he experienced his first non-segregated venues. He wrote in his autobiography: “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.” He also wrote to his mother about eating in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford and how he was able to go to the same church as “whites.”
The Simsbury Historical Society notes that “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.” In his autobiography he wrote: “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.”
About the Simsbury Historical Society
The Simsbury Historical Society is a non-profit educational corporation founded in 1911 through a bequest of Abbie Sexton Barber to begin a “Historical Room” in Simsbury. Our first and current permanent home was acquired in 1962, through the gift of the Phelps family homestead. The Simsbury Historical Society collections now include more than one dozen structures, significant regional artifacts and important period and thematic collections.
The year Martin Luther King Jr. first worked for the Cullman Brothers in their tobacco fields in Simsbury.