Unique memorial celebrates MLK's work in Valley
Updated: Sep 25
Ceremony honors Martin Luther King's Simsbury legacy
Katherine Napier and Today Publishing received a First Place SPJ Award for this story • SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists
By Katherine Napier — Special to Today Magazine
Every year, the third Monday in January is dedicated to a man who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, organized the March on Washington, and contributed much more to the cause of the civil rights movement and equality.
In schools across the nation students learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and his accomplishments, but what many don’t know is that King spent time in Simsbury, a fact that some once thought to be a suburban myth.
In 2010, 16 Simsbury students set out to determine the truth. Through their project — sponsored by the Simsbury Free Library and led by Simsbury High social studies supervisor Richard Curtiss — they discovered that as a teen King lived and worked in town at a tobacco farm the summers of 1944 and ’47, with more than 100 other Morehouse College students, as a way to pay for tuition.
The students created an award-winning documentary that revealed that during King’s time in Simsbury, he witnessed a desegregated world for the first time. The small town held a promise for a different kind of society where everyone is treated equally. The documentary became nationally acclaimed when it was reported by the CBS Evening News.
In 2011, students came up with the idea to commemorate King’s time here in the Farmington Valley and erect a memorial, and a decade later that idea has come to fruition.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year — Monday, Jan. 18 — Simsbury unveiled the five-glass-panel MLK in CT Memorial, with each panel representing a stage of King’s life. The educational memorial, located on the lawn of the Simsbury Free Library, celebrates and recognizes this great civil rights leader and the role Simsbury played in his life. The Free Library and the Simsbury Public Library are separate facilities, but they are within walking distance on Hopmeadow Street.
Due to COVID-related issues, the public wasn't able to attend the memorial’s unveiling ceremony on-site at the Free Library, but the event was aired live on FM radio station 87.9 and live-streamed at the library's dedicated MLK in CT website. Video of the ceremony is available on the website — see the MLKinCT.com link below.
Simsbury resident Tara Willerup, vice chair of the Free Library board, says that when COVID restrictions have eased, there will be a bigger in-person dedication as a way to thank donors and sponsors.
During King’s time in Simsbury, he witnessed a desegregated world for the first time
The unveiling featured a brief outdoor ceremony at the Free Library with the Simsbury students, Curtiss, Willerup and Art Miller, director of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Hartford. The Simsbury High gospel choir presented a moving online musical performance of "I Need You To Survive" — a song that has been recorded and popularized by gospel music artist Hezekiah Walker.
After the ceremony, a car procession on Hopmeadow Street celebrated King's birthday and the new memorial. Willerup explains that people "decorated their cars with balloons, streamers and other birthday fanfare and joined in the procession down Hopmeadow to mark this remarkable achievement in our community.”
She says the ongoing goal is for "visitors to be educated, engaged in self-discovery, and inspired to live a life of inclusion, acceptance and tolerance.”
King was born on Jan. 15, 1929. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
For 10 years, Simsbury students have worked hard to meet fundraising goals and design the memorial, with the help of architect Jay Willerup, Tara's husband, who donated his time and expertise.
Funds for the $150,000 project were raised through the sale of personalized bricks on the pathway, along with contributions from individuals and businesses. Donations covered construction costs and created a fund for educational and enrichment programming as well as future maintenance. Simsbury-based Simscroft-Echo Farms Inc. has served as the contractor.
After so many students have worked on the memorial, Simsbury High senior Joao Galafassi says they are all excited to see it finally completed. He notes that when King visited town and sensed a “call to justice,” he was about Galafassi’s age. Similarly, the Simsbury students are at a point in their lives where they are eager to see change, Galafassi says.
The MLK memorial is expected to become an official stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. +
Katherine Napier is a graduate of Canton High School and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, where she was co-editor of her college newspaper
Today editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert contributed to this story — this award-winning story has also been published in the February 2021 edition of Today Magazine
• View award-winning documentary — Summers of Freedom: The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. in Connecticut
• Award-winning Today Magazine story — Their Dream: MLK Memorial