Long before he became a civil rights leader, a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. spent two summers in Simsbury working in the tobacco fields.
He was 15 during his first summer in town in 1944 and returned in 1947 when he was a student at Morehouse College. He worked at Cullman Brothers in Simsbury and would later proclaim that his time here influenced him to join the ministry.
The time King spent in Connecticut was turned into a documentary created and produced by students at Simsbury High School. “MLK Jr. and the Morehouse Students in Simsbury” debuted in January 2011 and brought the students local and national attention.
Now a group of dedicated individuals is interested in creating a permanent memorial to King in town. Co-chairwomen Margaret House and Nicole Byer are spearheading the effort to raise $200,000 for the project.
CIGNA has donated $20,000 and the Simsbury Historical Society has agreed to offer space on its campus as a home for the memorial. Margaret, 17, has had a busy summer with her work, helping to design the memorial and raise money.
She was a research intern who spent the summer prior to the documentary being released conducting research on King in Connecticut, and specifically Simsbury. She read through old documents and browsed through microfilm to find information.
“It became apparent that this project would be really interesting,” she said as her research went on. “I had no idea he was actually here.”
She was surprised to learn how young King was when he entered college.
“It’s part of his life no one talks about,” she said. “We don’t talk about what he did at age 15.”
One of the things that left an impression on her were the comments King made in letters home. In one letter, King mentions getting a milkshake with his fellow Morehouse students and the fact they enjoyed their shakes in a non-segregated restaurant, something he had not experienced in the South.
“There would be two races eating in a restaurant, or in a movie theater,” Margaret said. “Its’ something my generation does not remember. That was eye opening.”
Nicole explained that her contributions to the documentary included looking through old newspapers and conducting interviews “to get a feel for what Simsbury was like in the 1940s when he was here. Two other students and I then spent a couple months working on the technical part of the documentary – recording the narration, importing pictures and creating the final product,” she said.
Nicole recently graduated from Simsbury High School and is taking a gap year to study in the Amazon this summer.
“I don’t know if I learned anything about MLK other than about his time in our town, but I did start to feel a certain connection with him that I never had before,” she said. “He transformed from a historical figure into a real person, a teenager, that I could relate to.”
Sisters Taylor and Maggie Willerup, both 17, were freshman when they worked on the documentary through the summer of 2009 and now they are assisting with the memorial project, too. They have recruited friends to help and have introduced their peers to what they learned about King and his time in town.
Maggie recalled interviewing residents about their childhoods and the time when King was here.
“Just talking to them about their childhood, it made me appreciate my childhood, how different growing up here was,” Maggie said.
For some time there had been talk of King having spent time in Simsbury, but it was not until they began to do research and learn more about the young man that they began to turn the myth into a reality.
“We were looking through audio clips and found something where he mentions Simsbury,” Maggie said. “That solidified that.”
What impressed her the most about King in Connecticut was that he was so young and the fact that on his college application he mentions his time here and the influence this experience had on wanting to pursue the ministry.
“He was our age and already he knew what he wanted to do,” said Maggie.
Taylor is hoping the memorial and the documentary will get people’s attention and promote interest in learning more about King.
Conor Lyman, 17, was first introduced to the time King spent in town when he performed with the high school jazz band at a Martin Luther King Day celebration.
“I thought it was an interesting thing to pursue, to get the word out about how much of an impact the town I live in had on someone so important,” he said.
“It shows how we take for granted the community we live in now,” Conor added. “He came from a different part of the world, a different culture. I’m really bored in Simsbury, I want to go to Boston or New York, but he found so much just in this one town.”
“I think it shows this town is really great, he really liked it,” said Ali Heubner, 15.
Kyle Heubner, 17, heard about King and Simsbury on the news when the documentary came out and the two were asked to help with the memorial by Maggie.
“One of the most important parts is to get the community involved,” he said, adding that when school starts it would be great to talk about the memorial and that getting information out through sites like Facebook would be helpful.
Taylor has been helping with fund raising and spent the summer organizing a list of possible donors. Conor is interested in helping to plan a benefit concert.
The students and their film were featured on the CBS Evening News and in a story on National Public Radio and the Associated Press, in addition to local media.
“It’s been kind of surreal,” Margaret said.
The idea of commemorating King’s time in town has been around for some time, but she said once the documentary came out, interest increased.
“After we finished the documentary we wanted to somehow continue with the project and decided that a memorial would be a lasting reminder of MLK’s time in Simsbury,” Nicole said.
The group has three advisors who are assisting them with everything from the legal components to the design and marketing.
A spot had to be found to place the memorial. The Simsbury Free Library had offered space on its property before the historical society offered a more prominent space.
The co-chairwomen also began to develop a list in order to seek contributions. They spent much of their time writing letters to major corporations and have solicited residents and businesses.
They have also had input on the design of the memorial.
“We’ve been working on this since last summer,” Margaret said.
They opted not to erect a statue of King, but rather a memorial that will feature a brick pathway with footsteps leading to a series of rounded benches with glass panels attached to them. The panels will have an image of King etched on, as well as his words.
Architect Jay Willerup, father of Taylor and Maggie, agreed to help the students. He introduced the group to his former art teacher, Peter McLean, who has created design submissions for memorials around the country. McLean asked the students to sketch out elements from the research and the resulting film that they wanted incorporated into the memorial.
“I didn’t design the memorial. It was the students who wanted to do it, Peter who inspired them to create a design and my bringing the design elements together to produce a set of design drawings,” Willerup said.
“It’s really from the students collaborating and being slightly guided or given options from consultants, artist and advisors that created this memorial.”
The memorial will be set back from the street. Visitors will be welcomed by a brownstone entry marker. The pavers will be brown and change to a 50-50 mix of brown and buff as the walkway gets closer to the memorial.
The colors of the pavers represent King’s race and his work to overcome segregation. There will be glass footsteps mixed in the pavers to “show the stride of a young man of Martin Luther King Junior’s age,” and the footprints will be lit. There are to be several lit benches made of Georgia granite.
Five glass panels will be displayed to show the progression of King’s life. They will include his family history, coming to Simsbury, and more. A timeline and sundial featuring significant events in his life will be included.
Bronze plaques will explain these events. When the date and time of a certain milestone event is reached, a beam of light will illuminate the plaque, highlighting the event. Visitors will leave the memorial site through a northern exit, symbolizing King’s introduction to a racially integrated part of the country. SL
Those interested in learning more or making a donation may visit mlkinct.com.