January 21, 2013

Picking tobacco in Connecticut, like King did

A story I wrote in 2010:

SIMSBURY – With their weathered red planks and gabled roofs, the long, narrowtobacco sheds of this Connecticut Valley town seem a long way from the civil rights struggle in post-World War II America.

But, oddly enough, they actually played a critical role.
In 1944, a 15-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr headed north from Atlanta to the tobacco fields of Simsbury, a voyage he undertook mostly to get away from home.
He joined a horde of other young people – including many from nearby towns who rose as early as 4 a.m. to catch buses that took them to the jobs – who cared for the famous shade-grown broad leaf tobacco growing under a sea of gauzy cloth beneath the hot summer sun.
Working in the tobacco fields – miserable summer jobs by all accounts – helped shape the giant who stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial less than two decades later to proclaim that he had a dream.
For King, the two summers he worked in the tobacco fields of the Connecticut Valley – in 1944 and in 1947 – were among the most crucial times of his life, his first prolonged look at a society without legally mandated segregation and the spot where he decided to devote his life to the ministry.
King looked back on the first trip to Connecticut in a passage published in his Autobiography a few years ago: “After that summer in Connecticut, 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.
“The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect,” King wrote.
That’s the voice of the civil rights leader looking back on his life years later.
But there are also a few remnants of King’s time in Connecticut, the slim memories of an old friend and a handful of letters that King sent home.
King, who lived in a Spartan work camp at a farm owned by Cullman Brothers, snagged one of the best slots available – working in the kitchen instead of the fields.
“I get better food than any of the boys,” he wrote to his father, “and more I get as much as I want.”
That’s probably why one of his friends that summer later told a biographer of the civil rights hero that King was voted one of the two laziest workers that summer from among their group.
When you consider what the work out in the fields was like, it’s not hard to see why someone in the kitchen seemed to have a sweet gig.
Frank Nicastro, a Bristol politician, recently recalled what it was like working for Cullman Brothers about a decade after King’s first trip to Connecticut.
Catching a bus to the fields from Bristol at sunrise, Nicastro said, workers spent most of the day suckering the tobacco plants, or stripping off the little sprouting leaves in between the larger lower leaves.
“The only way  you could do that was dragging your backside” along the often wet or sandy ground down the long rows of plants, Nicastro said, with dirt seeping its way all over everyone.
As the tobacco grew, the next picking entailed kneeling before plant after plant, he remembered.
“It was tough,” Nicastro said.
Steve Emirzian, a writer who lives in Canton, said that when he headed out to the fields as a 13-year-old from his Farmington home in the 1970s, the bosses “barked orders at us kids. We had to grab the three leaves closest to the ground, which sounds easy except you had to determine if a tobacco leaf was ready to be picked,” a subjective term at best.
“The guys in charge would take delight in yelling at us all day” Not THAT one!’ or ‘"Don't pick 'em like a girl!’” Emirzian remembered.
Glenn Klocko of Southington said that at the age of 13 in 1968 he begged his mother to let him work in the fields. She finally relented so he climbed on a bus in Meriden and headed for a tobacco farm in Windsor Locks.
The youngsters were taught to get on their hands and knees and wrap their fingers around the base of each plant and strip away the suckers, the little leaves.
Within an hour, Klocko said, he felt cramped and filthy. When a thunderstorm rolled in, he got covered with mud, too.
Even his underwear was caked brown with the dirt, he said.
By the time he got home, stinky, sore and sunburned, his mother had to turn a hose on him before he could go inside.
“It was hard, hard work,” Klocko said. He never went back.
Brigid Fitzgerald Arace, a former Connecticut resident who lives in Ohio, said she worked with her sister Anne at an East Windsor farm, where they formed a sewing team after the picking was done.
After tying the young tobacco plant to a string early in the summer, she said, the pair shared a machine in the tobacco shed “and took threading two leaves of tobacco at a time onto a wooden lat.”
“I think it took about 20 pairs of leaves before it was full and then we took this lat and hung it on some kind of holder,” she recalled recently, where the tobacco would be left to cure before its sale for use in wrapping cigars.
Diane Davis, who lasted only two weeks because the job was so awful, said she used to come home stained green and smelling like tobacco.
Miserable as the job could be, King found it eye-opening.
“The white people here are very nice,” the 15-year-old King wrote to his father in 1944. “We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.”
To his mother, King wrote, “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.”
King later wrote that he went to Simsbury just before going to Morehouse College “and worked for a whole summer on a tobacco farm to earn a little school money to supplement what my parents were doing.”
To his mother that summer, King wrote that he’d had a day off so he went into Hartford with friends and “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,” he wrote.
King returned to pick tobacco again in the summer of 1947, when he “led religious service for his fellow student workers at a tobacco farm” in Simsbury, according to Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr Papers Project at Stanford University.
But it may have been beer that propelled King to declare his intention to become a preacher that summer.
According to Taylor Branch’s magisterial history of King, police accosted King during some sort of beer in the barracks shenanigans, though they didn’t make an arrest. But concern that the episode might reach his father’s ears in Atlanta may have convinced the future civil rights leader to tell his dad about his career choice quickly in order to fend off the possibility of trouble at home.
Carson said that “about all we know” of King’s early forays to Connecticut comes from his letters.
It happened so long ago that few if any people have any memory of King from those summers, he said, and he would look skeptically at claims by others to recall much of anything about King in those days.
After all, he said, King was just a teenage boy at the time with “no real strong connections” to the area.
Other than the summers picking tobacco, Carson said, probably the only other times that King went to Connecticut were to give a speech or two.
Connecticut Public Television’s Connecticut Journal determined that King spoke at least a dozen times at Yale, Wesleyan and in Bridgeport in the years after the Montgomery bus boycott. He also gave at least one address at Hartford’s Bushnell Auditorium.
It isn’t clear whether he ever mentioned his earlier trips to Connecticut during one of his addresses at the height of his fame.
But what is obvious is that Connecticut left its mark on King, who would be 81 years old this month if an assassin hadn’t gunned him down.

Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

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