In the middle of a snowy field in Simsbury stand two dilapidated tobacco barns. Etched in the coal are the names of workers who spent summers sorting and curing shade tobacco to make cigars.
Once in danger of being destroyed, Meadowood holds the story of how the fate of 15-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. was etched in history, thanks to his time spent in the north.
It is a story almost forgotten and almost buried by time and indifference.
“Just to step back and see him walking around here in Connecticut and enjoying, as you said in his words, the freedoms we take for granted, that would have been just awesome,” said Deborah Gaston of Hartford. .
When Deborah Gaston was 14, she started working in a tobacco field in Bloomfield.
“To know that similar is what Dr. Martin Luther King did that is overwhelming. It’s exciting and overwhelming at the same time,” Gaston said.
The teenage King came to Connecticut for two summers as part of Morehouse College’s Tuition Assistance Program.
He came home with something far more valuable than money (in fact, he sent his money back to his mother), a life lesson.
“Whites and blacks can dine out together, whites and blacks can worship together,” said Todd Levine, Connecticut’s Freedom Trail coordinator.
Unlike in the segregated south, in Simsbury the young king could watch movies with white children his own age at Eno Hall and attend integrated dances at the Grange. It was a liberating experience for him and one he wrote about in letters to his family.
“We know it made a difference because in his application to Kroeger Theological Seminary he said he realized that summer that it was my calling to serve and that summer he refers to is its been here in Connecticut,” said Catherine Labadia, the state’s assistant historic preservation officer.
Dr. King went on to lead the civil rights movement in the south, and his time in the north was all but forgotten. That was until a group of Simsbury students set out to uncover the mystery.
For decades, Dr. King’s stay in Simsbury was part of the town’s traditions. In 2010, a group of Simsbury High students set to work to uncover the truth. Searching for old newspaper clippings, letters, and even audio files, they found evidence that a young Dr. King had really come to Connecticut in the 1940s.
Their research turned into 15 minutes documentary titled “Summers of Freedom”, chronicling King’s time in Simsbury.
“The thing that kept coming back to me was that he was our age when he was here and he became an icon, it just gave me hope,” said Maggie Willerup, a graduate of Simsbury in 2013 who worked on the project.
King came to Connecticut in 1944 and 1947. Unlike his classmates, Labadia said he didn’t need the money for school.
“Martin Luther King, Jr.’s situation is actually very different from that of most students at Morehouse College. While most of them work to pay for their school fees, his father insisted that he come here more to learn a life lesson,” Labadia said, while noting that Dr King also worked as a cook. in the dorm and was treated better than some. other students because his father was a successful pastor.
The lessons the young king learned in Connecticut would prove crucial.
“He was going to be a doctor or a lawyer, and it was his time in Connecticut that really changed his mind about becoming a civil rights leader,” Levine explained.
In letters to his family in Georgia, King compared Connecticut to the segregated south.
“He said when he came here it was an experience like no other. It was just a whole different world. He was able to sit next to a white person and drink a milkshake” said Harper Wilson, a Simsbury senior and MLKinCT committee member.
While in Connecticut, the young king marveled that he could eat at any restaurant and go to any movie theater. These experiences would inspire King’s calls for equality.
A decade later, a new group of students set out to ensure that Dr. King’s connection to Connecticut would not be forgotten.
“We said let’s not stop there, let’s build something that we can remember from his time at Simsbury,” Wilson said.
Opposite the old theater where King is said to have watched films, a new memorial stands outside the Simsbury Free Library. It honors the memory of Dr King and his time at Simsbury.
“So impressive that he got our age walking the same streets we walked every day,” Willerup said.
In 2017, Labadia came across a treasure trove in her office documenting Dr. King’s stay in Connecticut.
“There was a box I was putting on the shelf and it only had the letters MLK on it,” Labadia said.
During his research, Labadia discovered plans on the city’s website for a subdivision on the very spot where King cut down the tobacco. The news caught the attention of the Trust for Public Land.
A public and private campaign succeeded in halting development plans for the nearly 300-acre site. Now there’s pressure to save the sheds where Dr. King and his classmates spent their summers.
This tribute, Gaston said, is long overdue.
“Connecticut was a big influence in his life making him the person he was,” Gaston said. “The freedoms and how things can be different, living what he went through and taking it so we can share it with our children.”
The mission to uncover the mystery of Dr. King’s Connecticut connection is over, but the work to preserve it has only just begun.
Preservation efforts are underway with plans to put Meadowood on the National Register and on the Connecticut Freedom Trail before it’s too late.
“When we first learned of this there were many tobacco sheds and just two years ago on this particular site there were five, now there are only three,” said Levine.
According to the Trust for Public Land, only 2% of sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places focus on the experiences of Black Americans.
“Everyone will be able to learn about the history of the Morehouse students here, the history of Martin Luther King Jr. here, and the significance of this site,” Levine said.
Plans for Meadowood include an outdoor display of the letters Dr. King wrote while in Connecticut. Levine hopes the hangars can be stabilized enough to allow the public to view the interior safely as well.
They hope to complete the project by the end of 2023.
Labadia hopes this quiet place will also serve as a place of reflection and inspiration, just as it did for Dr. King.
“Looking back at history, feeling where you are now, then looking at where you could be in the future,” she said. “When you can touch the story, it’s like the story can touch you.”