Oral History helps reveal how Connecticut town influenced young Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. Getty Images. 1999-2011. Photo by Reg Lancaster / Express/ Getty Images Early life influences on Martin Luther King revealed through oral history and research in the town of Simsbury, Connecticut. What was already known: MLK spent part of his youth working in the tobacco fields in Connecticut to earn money for school. What was recently discovered: his leadership among his peers and the experience of equality shaped his life. High school students researched how their home town played a key role in shaping the life of this Atlanta teenager.

[Simsbury High School students John] Conard-Malley and [Nicole] Beyer led the research project, which included going through books and old articles, and gathering oral history from people like 105-year-old Bernice Martin who says King went to her church in Simsbury.

“He had a good voice,” Martin said. “He sang in the choir.”

They put their findings in a video. It tells the story of King’s two summers in Simsbury - at the age of 15 and again at 18 - when he lived here in the dorms provided by the tobacco company.

Simsbury, Connecticut: The location where Martin Luther King Jr. spent a couple of summers working in the tobacco fields. Today in Simsbury, the video was premiered for the town in its local commemoration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Tying together news accounts from that time, with personal recollections and other research materials, the students showed how King’s experiences of life outside of the Jim Crow segregation experience, together with his own emerging leadership experience, helped to forge his path as a religious leader who worked to bring that experience of freedom and equality for all.

(note: all the links within this next section lead to the original documents that are part of the online King Papers Project.)

That leadership role had a profound effect. On his seminary application, King said that’s when he decided he wanted to be a minister. But what seems to have affected him even more was Simsbury itself.

In letters written home King said, “Negros and whites go to the same church.” About restaurants he wrote, “I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere.” Most telling, he wrote about going home, “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.”

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on January 17, 2011 in • Oral history in the news
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