Chester Groups to Honor Civil Rights Hero
September is Connecticut Freedom Trail Month, a monthlong celebration of the struggles for achievements in freedom and human rights by the state’s African-American community. The Chester Historical Society (CHS) and Chester Land Trust (CLT) are prepared to celebrate one of Connecticut’s greatest civil rights heroes, Constance Baker Motley, at a Freedom Trail celebration at her namesake preserve on Saturday, Sept. 23.
The two town groups will be dedicating the Little Rock Nine Hiking Trail and a historical plaque to the Freedom Trail cause at the ceremony, a moment the CHS and CLT have been anticipating for some time.
“We were going to do this dedication of the hiking trail two years ago and the installation of the plaque this past spring, but we said, ‘No, we should wait for the Connecticut Freedom Trail Month’ [when] the celebration of all the 160 sites go on across the state in September,” said Marta Daniels of the CHS.
The Constance Baker Motley Preserve and its Little Rock Nine Hiking Trail were originally added to the state’s Freedom Trail list in 2018 to honor the achievements the New Haven-born Baker Motley made in landmark civil rights cases in the history of the United States.
“It’s a serious, historic trail, and it’s dedicated to understanding those in our state, African Americans… who had extraordinary contributions to freedom and human dignity in their lives,” said Daniels.
Baker Motley, whose family owned a home in Chester on 100 Cedar Lake Road for 40 years, obtained a role with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and worked as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, and was the first black woman to argue at the nation’s highest court.
She eventually rose to the rank as the district judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, the first black woman as the first black woman to be appointed to the federal judiciary.
“Motley’s courtroom brilliance earned her the reputation as ‘Chief tactician of the Civil Rights Movement,’” said the CHS and CLT.
The hiking trail, which was created by the CLT, is named after the nine teenagers who confronted the violent resistance against their entry into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Baker Motley and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund won their admission into the school and was one of 200 Brown v. Board-based cases she litigated in dismantling Jim Crow-era segregation laws at schools across the American South.
“The Chester hiking trail, named for the students, honors and memorializes their historic struggle and the attorney who helped make it successful,” said the CHS and CLT.
The date of the celebration on Sept. 23 at the preserve will be exactly 63 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10730, which sent federal troops to Little Rock to maintain order and peace surrounding the integration of Central High School.
As part of the ceremony, video recordings of the Little Rock Nine will be played, one about the history of their effort and another “sending their greetings and support and thanks for our efforts in Chester, and for naming something in their honor. And for being a part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail,” said Daniels. “It’s a very, very touching and inspiring statement, and we’re going to broadcast that on the day of the event.”
Speakers will include Joel Motley, Baker Motley’s son, and Connie Royster, her niece, both of whom also became lawyers. State Representative Christine Palm will also be a speaker.
It is moments in history like the successful fight for the Little Rock Nine and the retelling of their efforts that are important inspirations for the kind of struggles faced today and will be faced in the future, said Daniels.
“I think retelling the story of the Little Rock Nine helps us not only understand the past but helps us navigate the present and go into the future with confidence and determination to be the kind of human beings we’d like to be with courage,” said Daniels.
The struggle for equality and freedom by Baker Motley and the people in the American South, for whom she fought for their civil rights, reverberates to this day as a great source of inspiration for those struggles.
“We think that…Constance Baker Motley and the Little Rock Nine students, eight of them are still alive today, are an inspiration for all of us, and in particular for young people who can learn about their story by reading the plaque and following up and finding out on the web, what their their courage was all about,” said Daniels. “I think all of us need inspirational characters that help us learn how other people have navigated difficult situations and survived.”
The celebration and dedication will take place on Saturday, Sept. 23, from 1 to 4 p.m. at 100 Cedar Lake Road, Chester.