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06/13/2017 03:30 PM

New Chester Land Trust Project Commemorates Civil rights Hero

Judge Constance Baker Motley was a civil rights hero whose work helped shape the modern America we recognize today. A preserve is being dedicated in her honor on at noon Saturday, June 24 at 99 Cedar Lake Road. Photo courtesy of the Chester Library

Judge Constance Baker Motley was known in Chester as a friend to many, a nature enthusiast, and a lover of the history of the town. What many might not know is that Motley herself had a significant impact on the history of the country, first as an attorney, and later as a judge. The Chester Land Trust has recently bought a portion of the property she owned in Chester, at 99 Cedar Lake Road, to convert into a preserve and to honor her memory and her legacy. The preserve will be dedicated to her in a ceremony at the property at noon on Saturday, June 24.

Chester Historical Society member Marta Daniels has been responsible for curating information on Motley’s history.

“From her early life through her career, following her journey is a road map to the civil rights movement,” said Daniels. “She pushed boundaries for women and minorities. Hers is not a civil rights or women’s story, but an American story. People will want to pigeon hole her, but she’s a hero for both women and men.”

Motley was from a large immigrant family from New Haven; her parents came from Nevis in the West Indies and emigrated at the turn of the century. The 9th of 12 children, she was able to attend college—and law school—after impressing philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee at a speech contest.

Motley purchased the property in 1965 after working for 20 years as an attorney for the NAACP in the South in school desegregation cases.

“In 1954, the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision [upholding states’ right to segregate schools by race] was ruled unconstitutional in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, but there was no direction for when or how quickly [desegregation of schools] would have to happen,” said Daniels. “It became obvious that segregationists weren’t going to comply, so the NAACP had to take them to court. Motley was the first to write a brief showing that ‘separate but equal’ was not really equal, which was used the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.”

Motley worked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. She spent 20 years protected by armed guards and working under threats of violence common for those who worked to end segregation and for equal rights during the Civil Rights Era.

“She was the first female, black attorney to stand in a courtroom in the South, in 1949 in Jackson, Mississippi,” said Daniels. “Marshall wanted Motley as the face in court. She argued 200 cases from 1946 to 1966.”

In 1966 she was appointed to be a judge, but she was also a politician from 1964 to 1965, the first black state senator in New York, as well as a city borough president.

She and her husband, Joel purchased the historic house and seven-acre property across from Camp Hazen in 1965. They came on weekends and holidays with their son, also named Joel. They had several gardens, and were known to enjoy the pond on the property, as well as cooking, entertaining, and simply relaxing from the intense pressure of her career.

“She worked to integrate every school system across 11 Southern states. As the chief judge of the Southern District of the New York Federal Court, she became known as ‘the baseball judge,’ for settling a case where the Yankees wouldn’t allow female reporters into the players’ locker room,” said Daniels. “The Chester property allowed them to rest and restore their spirits, hers from the work she did, and her husband’s from supporting her through her career.”

Motley passed away in 2005.

“This is such a great honor to study her life. I am an example of someone who was interested and didn’t know Motley,” said Daniels. “She kept a very low profile, was a very humble person. Around here she was just known as a judge from New York City. When we celebrate her life, we recognize our own history. She changed life for the better. I think she widened the perceptions of opportunities for women and people of color. It is important now, more than ever to remember her courage, that people of courage have persisted.”

Jenny Kitsen, a member of the Chester Land Trust, also remarked on the understated nature of Motley’s life in Chester.

“She lived here for 40 summers’ worth of summers, and many in town never knew she was there,” said Kitsen. “When we finally realized, we were in contact with her son, who was also a land trust member. He told us that there was land he was interested in making available as a preserve—6.7 acres adjacent to Cockaponset State Forest, and near the Boy Scout encampment.”

“It was an opportunity for both preservation and history, and a wonderful opportunity to highlight Motley’s life,” said Kitsen.

The land trust purchased the property through fundraising, and plans on building a walking trail. There will also be a kiosk that highlights history of Motley, a picnic table, and a small parking lot. The preserve will include both open and forested space. The land for the preserve is on the Cedar Lake side of Cedar Lake Road; the original house still stands, under new ownership, directly across the street.

The acquisition and preservation of the Motley property, in partnership with community stakeholders such as the Chester Historical Society, earned the Chester Land Trust an award for excellence in conservation from the Connecticut Land Conservation Council.

“This is the first property the land trust has purchased; all other properties have been donated. We’re proud and quite excited to be able to do this,” said Kitsen.

More information on Judge Constance Baker Motley can be found at the kiosk on the property, in the PBS film Justice is a Black Woman, and as part of the current exhibit at the Chester Museum at the Mill on notable residents of Chester. The dedication will be at 99 Cedar Lake Road at noon on Saturday, June 24. All are welcome, but parking is limited.