Foothills Media Group: The Simsbury News January 10, 2011 Ann Marie Potter
Students document King's time spent in Simsbury
SIMSBURY — Two summers spent by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Simsbury tobacco fields were instrumental in forming the civil rights leader’s decision to become a minister and his philosophy, according to a team of Simsbury High School students.
The young scholars, including senior John Connard-Malley and junior Nicole Byer, have uncovered evidence that King spent the summers of 1944 and 1947 in Simsbury as a young man working in the tobacco fields.
The students have prepared a 15-minute video detailing their findings, which will be premiered Monday, Jan. 17, at 1 p.m. at Eno Hall, as part of the first Simsbury program commemorating King, who was the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination.
The video was a joint project between the Simsbury Free Library and Simsbury High School.
“These kids worked extremely hard,” said Jim Flynn, chairman of the board of trustees for the Simsbury Free Library. “They conducted interviews and did quite a bit of research. The evidence is pretty conclusive that he (King) was here and Simsbury had a significant impact on his life.”
Flynn, along with board members Rick Wagner and T. J. Donohue, helped oversee the project with Richard Curtiss, Simsbury High School social studies department supervisor, as well as Matthew Flynn, who is a sophomore at George Washington University.
But it was the Simsbury High School students who had the initiative and determination needed to clarify this important piece of Simsbury’s history.
More than a dozen juniors and seniors met for two full afternoons each week during the summer, poring over microfiche at the Simsbury Free Library, visiting the Simsbury Historical Society and contacting renowned King expert Clayborne Carson at Stanford University.
They worked with Pam McDonald, Simsbury resident and librarian at Westminster School who researched King’s legacy for an independent study project at Syracuse University and is a member of the Connecticut Center for Non-Violence, which promotes King’s philosophies.
She shared her newspaper clippings, scrapbooks and notes with the students, whom she described as “fabulous, really smart kids. They did an exquisite job of gathering information. Nothing is inaccurate from a research point of view. I just think that people in Simsbury can be very proud of having a part in the history of our country.”
They also conducted a number of interviews, portions of which are included in the video. Bernice Martin, 105, lives at McLean in Simsbury and recalls having King over for dinner many years ago. Her husband, Garland, was the choir director at the time for the First Church of Simsbury.
Connard-Malley, who co-directed the video with Byer, said Martin told him that King “was shocked that a white person would invite him to eat at their house.”
There are other interviews with Simsbury residents Don Paine, Wesley Case, and Bill Duschaneck, who reportedly played baseball with King, as well as the Rev. King T. Hayes, former minister of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Hartford who attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where King went to school.
Hayes also worked in the tobacco fields in 1947, the second summer King was in Simsbury – although he doesn’t remember meeting the future civil-rights leader.
The students researched what the town of Simsbury and the Connecticut tobacco industry were like during the mid-1900s. They shot footage at tobacco farms in Windsor, where Connecticut shade-grown tobacco leaves are still grown and used to roll cigars, as they were during King’s time here.
“Simsbury was a tiny rural town,” Byer said. “Most of the roads were dirt roads and it was all farmland with two main industries, Ensign-Bickford and tobacco. There were only two policemen for the whole town. We learned a lot about Simsbury in that time.”
She said that the civil rights leader was only 15 years old when he first came to Simsbury during the summer of 1944. He was part of a group of students from Morehouse College who worked on the tobacco fields so they could afford college tuition.
“He got his first taste of the north,” said Byer. “I think Simsbury really affected him and gave him the hope that things really could be different.”
King was the youngest student attending Morehouse college at that time; he was extremely intelligent and had skipped two grades in earlier years, according to McDonald.
He also had never traveled this far north before, she said. On the train from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., King had to ride in a segregated railroad car, but once the train reached the nation’s Capitol, he could move through any car just like a white person, which was a new experience for him, she noted.
While in Simsbury, he could drink from any water fountain and order a milk shake at the local diner, something that was unheard-of in the south, McDonald.
On weekends, King would act as unofficial minister for the other workers who were living in a large dorm near Barndoor Hills and Firetown Road, where Scarborough Road is now located, said Connard-Malley.
“The (Morehouse College students) said he was really good and could have passed as a trained minister,” explained Connard-Malley, who would like to study film-making in college.
For the next two summers, McDonald said King worked as a porter on a train, and returned to the Simsbury tobacco fields during the summer of 1947.
Soon after his second summer in Simsbury, King told his father he was committing to the ministry as a career, McDonald said.
In September of 1948, King applied to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. The students obtained a copy of his application to the school which read:
“My call to the ministry was quite different from most explanations I’ve heard. The decision came about in the summer of 1944 (when he was in Simsbury) when I felt an inescapable urge to serve society. In short, I felt a sense of responsibility in which I could not escape.”
The video also includes excerpts from letters that the young King wrote during his two summers in Simsbury; four to his mother and one to his father.
King referenced churches that he attended in Simsbury and Hartford and the fact that he went to the movies.
Perhaps most revealing is the audio track the students obtained that was found in the basement of the University of Hartford in 2004.
During a speech in 1959 at Bushnell Memorial Hall in Hartford, King acknowledged that many people in Connecticut thought talk of his visits here “was a myth,” Connard-Malley said.
“We have it in King’s own words that he remembers working in the tobacco fields ‘near Simsbury’ and going into Hartford on the weekends. This is one of the biggest pieces of evidence we have that it actually happened, which is really cool,” he added.
In the south, Connard-Malley said, only the immediate main street area was considered the town, so that was why King said he worked “near Simsbury.”
Mark Robinson, vice chairman of the Connecticut Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission, is so impressed with the video that he is premiering it during the Martin Luther King 25th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, Jan. 15, at the Hartford Marriott. The students will be recognized for their work in front of 600 dignitaries and guests at a black tie gala.
Robinson heard about the video from Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman and came to the Simsbury Free Library for a preliminary screening in September.
He said he was amazed at “their commitment to a project of this scope and magnitude, which is fairly uncommon for high school students.”
They also displayed “rigor and scholarship of research … very thorough ... lots of digging. They put together a score and did some very sophisticated editing,” he added. “They are just delightful people with such energy and poise.”
Robinson is such a fan that he is planning to show the video to a good friend: well-known film-director Spike Lee, who also attended Morehouse College.
In addition to Byer and Connard-Malley, the Simsbury High School students involved in the project are: Reem Elazazy, Omesh Kamat, Alicia Robinson, Eshani Agrawal, Stephon King, Bill Cahill, Monika Dragulski, Allison Hughes, Jefferson Wilkes, Margaret House, Altumash Mufti, Dylan Downes, Margaret Willerup and Taylor Willerup.
Along with introducing the video, the Jan. 17 ceremony in Eno Hall will include readings from King’s writings, performances of spirituals popular during his era and remarks from local leaders.
Simsbury Selectman John K. Hampton, who helped organize the event, said: “The Town of Simsbury is delighted to honor Dr. King in a meaningful way, celebrating his life and his time spent in our community.”
For the 16 students anxiously awaiting the lights to go down and their video to light up the screen, the ceremony will be even more meaningful. “It will be a big moment for Simsbury,” said Connard-Malley. “This is a huge story. For us to have the ability to share it is really awesome.”