September 12: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Teenage Summer in Simsbury

 

Years before he became an internationally famous orator and civil rights leader, young Martin Luther King, Jr. worked a number of jobs to make ends meet for his family. During the summer of 1944, after he gained early admission to Morehouse College at the age of 15, he journeyed north from Georgia to the tobacco fields of Simsbury with a group of fellow Morehouse students as part of a program to help pay the cost of their tuition and board.

Working the tobacco fields in summer was no pleasant task, as laborers endured long, hot, and humid days tending the broad-leaf shade tobacco plants under large, mesh canopies. Still, King and his compatriots were amazed at the lack of legally sanctioned segregation in the communities of Simsbury, Bloomfield, and Hartford. There, they were free to visit movie theaters, ride public transportation, attend church, and even dine in fine restaurants without enduring the southern requirement that they sit in special, “colored only” areas.

On September 12, 1944, King’s time in Simsbury came to an end. He and his fellow students began their return journey to Atlanta. The train ride home provided King with both time and reasons to reflect on his experiences in Connecticut. They had opened his eyes to what life could be like across America without legal segregation. Many years later, King wrote about that fateful train ride in his autobiography, stating:

“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 car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta. The first time that 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.”

Before graduating from Morehouse, King would return to Simsbury one additional time to work the tobacco fields in the summer, further highlighting the stark contrast of the legal realities facing black people in the northern and southern United States. Tobacco was harvested, and seeds of change were planted, on this day in Connecticut history.

Tobacco leaves hanging up to dry in a barn in Suffield, Connecticut, much like they did when Martin Luther King Jr. worked the tobacco fields of Simsbury in the 1940s. (Library of Congress)

Further Reading

Dr. King’s Dream Had Roots in Connecticut,” connecticuthistory.org

Martin Luther King: His Time in Simsbury, Connecticut,” Simsbury Historical Society

Clay Risen, “Martin Luther King in Connecticut: Closer to a Promised Land,” New York Times