A decade ago, a group of Simsbury High School students dreamed of constructing a permanent memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) after discovering he had spent two summers in their small Connecticut town. Now, a new generation of teens is unveiling the inspiring monument on Monday, January 18, 2021 at 1 p.m. on the grounds of the Simsbury Free Library. The striking series of five etched glass and stone panels commemorate the transformative journey of the civil rights leader that started when he worked in Simsbury tobacco fields in 1944 and 1947.
The grand opening will commence with a brief outdoor ceremony featuring students, teacher advisor Rich Curtiss, Tara Willerup, Vice Chairman of the Simsbury Free Library’s Board of Trustees and musical performances by The Henry James Memorial School Select Choir and the Simsbury Intonations Chorus. The COVID-safe celebration on MLK Day continues with a parade of cars passing in front of the memorial. The event will be streamed on Facebook Live with Gospel music playing on local radio station WSIM AM.
“We invite the public to decorate their cars with balloons, streamers and other birthday fanfare and join in the procession down Hopmeadow Street to mark this remarkable achievement in our community,” said Willerup. “The committee hopes that visitors will be educated, engaged in self-discovery and inspired to live a life of inclusion, acceptance and tolerance.”
Willerup explains the project started in 2009 when a team of sixteen students from Simsbury High School set out to prove or disprove the popular suburban myth that MLK had lived in Simsbury. “With the support of their teacher Rich Curtiss and the Simsbury Free Library staff, they were able to document his time here, along with the influence it had on his life.” The small historical library is a treasure trove of Connecticut history and the people who lived there, if only for a brief time.
Based on their research, the students created a nationally acclaimed documentary that explored how instrumental Dr. King's time in Simsbury was in shaping his personal philosophies and in forming his decision to become a minister. The video revealed how his visits opened the young King's eyes for the first time to a desegregated world to which he was not accustomed. He saw a land of promise, not a world of segregation.
The idea to erect a permanent memorial to MLK’s experience here came to four of the students shortly after completing the documentary. In 2011, a new set of students dedicated themselves to designing an immersive display to honor MLK and keep his dream alive. Current student members broke ground in October 2018. Funds for the $120,000 project were raised through the sale of personalized bricks that were used on the pathway, along with contributions from generous individuals and businesses. Donations covered construction costs and created a fund for educational and enrichment programming, as well as maintenance for the future.
“Once the documentary was released, the students wanted to ensure that the inspirational lessons of MLK continue to have a prominent presence in Simsbury, said Willerup. “The Free library’s location in the center of town makes it the ideal place for the exhibit.”
To determine both the design and elements used to convey the essence of the documentary, the students enlisted the expertise of master artist Peter McLean, a Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at the Hartford Art School/University of Hartford. They designed a series of five etched glass panels that appear to float unsupported. The glass was chosen to reflect the idea that his words are not meant to be bound by walls, but to be available to all people. Each panel illustrates a different aspect of MLK’s life:
- Family history
- Journey to Simsbury
- Time spent in Simsbury and why it was important to his life
- Leaving Simsbury and returning home to a segregated way of life
- Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and subsequent legacy
Entry and exit markers are located at the south and north side of the memorial respectively, to convey MLK’s journey from the South to Simsbury. These markers will be made from brownstone, a native stone of Connecticut used in many of Simsbury’s historic buildings. There is also a bench made of Georgia granite from MLK’s home state.
Architect Jay Willerup donated his time to translate the students’ vision into actual building elements. He drew the plans, determined material, fastenings, dimensions, etc., all with input from the students. Construction firm Simscroft-Echo Farms Inc. in Simsbury completed the project.
“It is important to acknowledge that the memorial is not just a monument, but rather a place where people can sit, reflect, and learn about the beginnings of Dr. King’s life-long dedication to justice, peace, and equality,” concludes Willerup. “We are thrilled that the memorial has been chosen as a destination on Connecticut’s Freedom Trail, so that Simsbury can continue the inspiring work of MLK.”
About the Simsbury Free Library
The Simsbury Free Library (the Simsbury Genealogical and Historical Research Library), located at 749 Hopmeadow Street in Simsbury, promotes interest in genealogy and history by providing access to research material and expertise, artifacts, and educational and cultural programs, to help visitors develop the skills required to create family trees, search local histories, look up census records, explore vital records, etc.
The Simsbury Free Library – the Gracious Yellow Lady – is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and the second and fourth Saturdays of the month from 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. as well as by appointment. To RSVP or for more information, visit www.simsburyfreelibrary.org
or call (860) 408-1336
PHOTO: A memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the transformative months he spent in Simsbury, Connecticut will be unveiled on January 18, 2021 on the front lawn of the Simsbury Free Library located at 749 Hopmeadow Street following social distancing safeguards. Credit: Simsbury Free Library