Their Dream: MLK Memorial
Updated: Jan 16
Students Pay Tribute to Martin Luther King’s Time in Simsbury
Today Magazine received an SPJ award for this story in 2020 — it first appeared as a Today Magazine cover story in August 2019, and this report is as timeless and relevant now as it was then
By Bruce Deckert
Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
When the topic is iconic leadership of the 20th century, historians will likely agree on a short list that includes these figures: Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Franklin Roosevelt, Mother Teresa … and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But perhaps some historians don’t yet know that King spent two formative summers in Simsbury. Some Simsbury High students have been engaged in a labor of love to spread the word about the amazing impact King’s time in town had on his life and calling — and they initiated and orchestrated a memorial in his honor that’s slated to be unveiled soon.
In the summer of 2010, a group of Simsbury students tackled a major research project to investigate King’s visits to Simsbury. Sponsored by the Simsbury Free Library and guided by Simsbury High social studies supervisor Richard Curtiss, they produced an award-winning documentary that premiered in January 2011 at two Martin Luther King Day celebrations in Hartford. Later, the documentary was featured on the CBS Evening News.
“For years, residents of Simsbury told tales of a young Martin Luther King Jr. who lived, worked and worshiped in their town while laboring on a tobacco farm during the summers of 1944 and 1947,” Curtiss says. “Our students set out to research this claim and to collect additional material to create a more complete picture of [his] time in Connecticut.”
Simsbury resident Tara Willerup, vice chair of the Free Library board of trustees, explains that for years there had been a “popular suburban myth” about MLK’s sojourns in Simsbury. Via careful investigation, the students were able to prove this was no myth — he was actually here those two summers. As a way to pay for tuition, King worked at a Cullman Bros. tobacco farm with 100-plus fellow students from Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he was born and raised.
By the way, your math is correct — this summer marks the 75th anniversary of King’s first visit to Simsbury in 1944.
“Students have been the driving force behind the memorial from the start,” says Curtiss, who began teaching at Simsbury High in 1997. “Students provided input into the design and were instrumental in the multiyear fundraising campaign. The idea … came from the original students who worked on the film and has been supported by additional students over the years.”
King’s memorial, which is expected to become an official stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, will be installed on the front lawn of the Simsbury Free Library— not to be confused with the Simsbury Public Library, 1/10th of a mile away on Hopmeadow Street.
This memorial won’t be a standard granite monument. Instead, it will feature a series of five glass panels, with each one devoted to a stage of King’s life. Architect Jay Willerup, Tara’s husband, donated his time to help students with the design. Simscroft-Echo Farms Inc. of Simsbury is the contractor.
The current group of students took the memorial baton from their predecessors and stand poised to witness their dream come to fruition … inspired by King’s civil-rights dream. MLK’s legendary “I have a dream” speech on Aug. 29, 1963 — at the historic March on Washington — is one of the best-known speeches in American history.
“Students have been the driving force behind the memorial from the start.” — Richard Curtiss Simsbury High social studies supervisor
Thanks to the dedicated work of the Simsbury High scholars, we know that King’s vision was notably impacted by his time in Simsbury. On his seminary application, he wrote, “My call to the ministry was quite different from most explanations I’ve heard. This decision came about in the summer of 1944 [in Simsbury] when I felt an inescapable urge to serve society. In short, I felt a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.”
In a letter to his mother in June 1944 — during his first trip outside the segregated South — King wrote about an unexpected discovery on a weekend visit to Connecticut’s capital: “I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate at one of the finest restaurants in Hartford.” He also noted that the summer of ’44 represented his first experience in racially integrated churches. Later, he wrote, “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation.”
King would become the signature leader of the civil rights movement and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Bernice Martin, who was 105 when the celebrated documentary premiered, is the only Simsbury resident in the film who met MLK.
“Yes, I remember meeting Martin Luther King — very much so,” she said in the film. “I met him in church for the first time because he came up with the tobacco workers.”
Bernice’s husband, Garland Martin, was the choir director at First Church in Simsbury in the 1940s — and King and other Morehouse students sang in the choir. Bernice died in January 2016 at the age of 110.
Today, there are no living local residents who interacted with King, according to area officials. But the testimony of those residents nearly a decade ago helped confirm that the once-supposed myth of MLK’s legacy in Simsbury is, in fact, reality. +
• View award-winning documentary — Summers of Freedom: The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. in Connecticut
Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is a five-time SPJ award-winner • He was an ESPN.com editor for 17 years
This story received a third-place SPJ award in 2020 in Connecticut's Education Reporting magazine category • SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists