January 15, 1997
In 1944, a fifteen year old Martin Luther King spent the summer working on a tobacco farm near Simbury, Connecticut. His experiences in integrated restaurants, halls, and churches made a profound and lasting impression on him.
In letters only recently published, King wrote home:
“Dear Father: On our way here we saw some things I had never anticipated to see. After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all. The white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.”
“Dear Mother: I am doing fine and still having a nice time. We went to church Sunday in Simsbury and we were the only Negroes there. Negroes and whites go to the same church.”
After a weekend trip he wrote:
“Dear Mother: Yesterday we didn’t work so we went to Hartford. We really had a nice time there. I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford. And we went to the largest shows there.”
William Pickens, who came from Atlanta and became a friend of King’s at the camp, recalled: “It was just an unfamiliar situation, that one could chat with a white person who was a peer. They were workers just like we were, and we could talk with them, briefly, during lunch time, and not get taken to jail for it.”
Years later King recalled his return from Connecticut to the segregated South: “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.”
King’s experiences in the North stayed with him. He later referred to his experience in Connecticut in 1944 as formative: “I felt an inescapable urge to serve society . . . a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.”
While the youthful Martin Luther King, Jr. could observe the blatant differences between race relations in Connecticut and the South in such areas as public accommodations and churches, he had less chance to observe the more subtle forms of segregation and discrimination that were present in Connecticut. These were documented almost simultaneously with King’s visit by Connecticut’s fledgling Inter-Racial Commission. Its studies published in 1946 found that:
“In 1940 there were only sixteen Negro stenographers, typists and secretaries employed in the entire state. Today, seventy-one Negroes are employed in many kinds of offices.”
“There were no Negro sales clerks in major department stores in 1943, but there are now 39 Negroes employed in sales and clerical positions.”
“In 1943 there were no Negroes in any school of nursing in Connecticut except at Yale University. Now there are only five among the 19 nursing schools which have not expressed willingness to accept qualified applicants without regard to race, religion, or national origin.”
The Commission surveyed the nine municipalities where most Connecticut blacks lived and found, “Of these nine places only Bridgeport has Negro firemen, only Hartford has Negro librarians, only three cities have Negro teachers and only four places have Negroes in administrative or clerical positions with the municipal government.
The Commission also found that much of the residential property in the state was covered by “restrictive covenants” under which owners agreed not to sell to Negroes and other specified racial, ethnic, and religious groups.
King’s youthful stays in Connecticut were virtually unknown until his letters home were rediscovered. Major articles about them appeared in The Hartford Courant January 21, 1991. However, the letters themselves were not published there, and so far as I have been able to determine have never appeared in any form in Connecticut.
The letters themselves were published only recently in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Volume I: Called to Serve (University of California Press, Berkeley) Senior Editor, Clayborne Carson. Attached to this paper are relevant pages from the introduction to that book and transcriptions of the letters themselves.
The Hartford Courant articles listed several people who might be worth interviewing for a Connecticut Journal piece on this subject:
William G. Pickens, now a professor at Morehouse, who came north with King and became his friend.
Silas W. Davis, who also came north and worked with King from Morehouse.
Bernice Martin, a member of the First Church of Christ (I believe in Enfield), who remembers King singing in the church’s choir.
Karyl Evans has conducted some research on potential interviewees and visuals for this subject for her documentaries on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.