Journal Inquirer August 28, 2013 Steven Crighton and John Kennedy
Summers in tobacco fields exposed King to desegregated world
Traveling to a summer job on the Cullman Bros. tobacco farm in Simsbury in the summer of 1944, a 15-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. marveled at the sight of communities moving beyond segregation. “On our way here we saw some things I had never antisipated (sic) to see,” King wrote in a June 15, 1944, letter to his father. “After we passed Washington, there was no discrimination at all the white people here are very nice. We go any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.”
King was one of many young black men from the South who worked picking tobacco during wartime, when many of the regular farm workers were fighting in World War II. Despite his young age, he was admitted into a special program at Morehouse College in Atlanta designed to keep the college afloat during the war, Simsbury High School social studies department Supervisor Richard Curtiss said this week. Curtiss and two dozen students worked in 2011 to uncover details about King’s time in Connecticut, but with the Cullman Bros. farms destroyed in a fire training exercise in 1984, they found little on King’s two summers in Simsbury.
One of the few telling pieces of physical evidence that remained were a set of five letters sent home to King’s family in segregated Georgia. In a June 18, 1944, letter to his mother King wrote that he and his friends had not worked the previous day and ended up dining at one of Hartford’s restaurants. He wrote that he was shocked, as he had “never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere.”
“We started to pull all this together, and what it seems his letters kept coming back to, the most significant part, was what it was like to be outside of the South for the first time,” Curtiss said. “He talked about things like going to a church with white people for the very first time, which is something he’d never done.”
The Morehouse youths attended church in Hartford and Simsbury, with the local one being the first desegregated church many had seen. “Negroes and whites go to the same church,” King wrote in a June 11, 1944, letter to his mother. Emmett L. Proctor Jr., a boyhood friend of King’s who died in 2009, told the Journal Inquirer in 1989 that King’s mother, Alberta, was reluctant to let him go to Connecticut at such a young age and “took a long look” at the program before consenting.
His free time at Cullman Bros. often was spent doing religious work, and King said in some letters to his family that he was selected as the workers’ religious leader and had taken charge of Sunday services where he speaks on any biblical text he wants. King even traced his desire to become a minister to that summer in Simsbury, as he noted in his application to Atlanta’s Crozer Theological Seminary in June 1948. When asked to provide his reason for wanting to study for “the gospel ministry,” King said his call was quite different from most explanations he’d heard. “This dicision (sic) came about in the summer of 1944 when I felt an inescapable urge to serve society,” King wrote. “In short, I felt a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.”
After working elsewhere for the next two summers, King returned to Cullman Bros. in 1947 and was “very involved in religious work,” William G. Pickens, a Morehouse English professor who died in 1999, said in 1989. “We considered Connecticut God’s country because we found freedom there,” Pickens said, adding that it was “far more freedom than we were accustomed to.”
King: ‘I get as much as I want’ Proctor was King’s picking partner in 1944, and said in 1989 the pair once emerged last from a row of tobacco and were approached by a foreman who suggested that they take the job of raising and lowering the nets as the other students worked. The two ended up falling asleep, and were left in the field when everyone else finished work for the day. On their way back to the boarding house, Proctor said, they found themselves surrounded in the dark by hulking animals and cried out in fear, only to discover the next morning that the creatures were only cattle.
In a June 11, 1944, letter to his mother, King said the “work is very easy,” and they have to be up at 6 a.m. every day and be in bed by 10 p.m. He said that he had a job in the kitchen, which allowed him to get better food “and more, I get as much as I want.” Proctor explained that King ladled out milk or other beverages for his co-workers as they came through the cafeteria line. “He was a little younger than the rest of us, and he was a little smaller than the rest of us,” Pickens said. “He was almost like a mascot.”
Pickens described King, who regularly sent money home to his parents, as “a very congenial and sociable person. … He didn’t believe in fighting.” He also said the young King was a practical joker, and one of his most popular pranks was “the hot foot,” in which he put a lit match between the toes of a sleeping person, though this usually wasn’t harmful.
Desegregated Connecticut changed King Though King spoke little publicly about his two summers in Connecticut, those close to him talked of how the experience of living in a desegregated society had racially, spiritually, and physically changed him. “Though it was hardly a glamorous job, my husband would later talk of the exhilarating sense of freedom he felt to be able to eat in any restaurant and to sit in the orchestra at the movies in Connecticut,” King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, wrote in her biography. “When the train on which he was coming home reached the southern states and he went to have a meal in the dining car, the waiter ushered him to a rear seat and pulled the curtain down in front of him. ‘I felt as though that curtain had dropped on my selfhood,’ Martin said.” Curtiss said that life outside of a world of segregation “seemed to have a really big effect on” King. “I think there was just that realization that maybe there is another way, and that there is this whole other part of America where segregation doesn’t exist. That may have been an influence as to what he went on to do. I’d like to think it was.”