Students at SHS create a documentary about Martin Luther King’s time in Simsbury. Events held Jan. 15 and 17.
Did you know Martin Luther King Jr. spent the summers of 1944 and 1947 in Simsbury? About 20 students at Simsbury High School do, and they have made a documentary about the subject that will have its debut this month in Hartford, followed by a showing in Simsbury.
King was working the tobacco fields as part of a local partnership with Morehouse College, where he was a student, to fill the jobs left by those who had gone off to serve in World War II.
The documentary Martin Luther King in Connecticut, will be screened at a black-tie gala at the Hartford Marriott Jan. 15 to mark the 25th anniversary of the country's official recognition of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It will be shown in Simsbury Jan. 17 at Eno Memorial Hall.
The Hartford event is sponsored by the State of Connecticut's Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission. The Simsbury High School students will be recognized for their work following the screening. The documentary examines the impact of King's stay in Simsbury as a teenager to his life and career later on.
"Simsbury was so different then," said Nicole Byer, 16, a junior and a co-director on the project.
That wasn't the only thing Nicole, her fellow students and co-directors, learned while making the documentary.
When traveling by train from Hartford, as the train got closer to the south, King went from being able to sit where he wanted to being relegated to the 'Jim Crow' car. Later, when King was a porter on a Pullman rail car he saw this practice again and again.
Nicole and co-director John Conard-Malley, 18, a senior, used material from five letters from this time period. Four were written to his mother and one to his father. They also located a speech King gave in 1959 at the Bushnell in Hartford, where he referred to his time in Simsbury. The speech was found in the mid-2000s at the University of Hartford, said John.
"Those are his own words," he said.
King went to see movies that were shown at Eno Memorial Hall and was able to sit where he pleased, something he also noted. He also went to Doyle's Drug Store for soda.
But the directors also broadened the scope of the film so that it's relevant not only to Simsbury residents. They wanted to film to be more than just for local people. In that they succeeded, as the film was seen by Bobby Houston, a filmmaker from Massachusetts who gave it solid reviews. Houston made the documentary, Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003 and won an Emmy. He taught a master class in film making at the high school.
About a dozen people were interviewed for the project, creating 25 hours of tape that was then edited down to create the 15-minute film. But one interview in particular stood out: Bernice Martin, 105. King had dinner at her house. At the time her husband was the choir director at First Church of Christ, said Martin, who today lives at McLean. First Church was one of the places King went, among other houses of worship in the area, during his time in town.
King was also part of a baseball team, the Morehouse 9. The team played by the triangle near Barndoor Hills Road against local teams.
In addition to learning about King's time in town, the students also became filmmakers — carting around cameras and working long hours on editing and sound. Nicole and John were also helped by Suffield Academy student and former Simsbury High School student Dylan Downes.
On Jan. 17, the Town of Simsbury, in partnership with the Simsbury Free Library, will commemorate King by holding a special program at Eno Memorial Hall at 1 p.m. This program will celebrate King's life and his time in Simsbury, coinciding with the federal holiday marking his birthday.
King's life was influenced by his two summers in Simsbury. His writings suggest that his call to ministry crystallized during his time spent with a group of Morehouse College students, earning money for their education by working at the Culbro Tobacco Farm in town.
"These students have spent an incredible amount of time researching and producing this film, and should be very proud," said Richard Curtiss, social studies chairman at the high school.
In addition to the video, there will be readings and songs sung by the students of Simsbury High School. The public is encouraged to attend and honor the spirit behind this day.
"The Town of Simsbury is delighted to honor Dr. King in a meaningful way, celebrating his life and his time spent in our community. We are happy to partner with the Simsbury Free Library on this initiative, and so proud of Mr. Curtiss and his talented students who have put together an amazing film," said Deputy First Selectman John K. Hampton in a press release about the event.