CHESTER — She was known as Chester’s best kept secret, whose work as a civil rights lawyer brought rulings that ended segregation in restaurants and at whites-only lunch counters in the Deep South.
As the first black woman to serve on the federal judiciary, she made groundbreaking decisions on everything from women’s rights to Wall Street insider trading.
On Oct. 6, Constance Baker Motley’s Chester property, where she quietly retreated with her husband and son for over four decades, will be dedicated as an historic site on the CT Freedom Trail.
Motley died in 2005 at the age of 84.
According to Chester Land Trust trustee Marta Daniels, “inclusion on the CT Freedom Trail is a state designation that places the property among a select few sites (140) that celebrate extraordinary African Americans in Connecticut whose lives expanded the circle of freedom and opportunity.”
Long before she stood alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at his “I Have A Dream Speech” in November 1963 — she had gotten him out of jail in Birmingham, Ala. earlier that year — Motley was growing up on Garden Street in New Haven, the ninth of 12 children of immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis.
“[A] star student in New Haven schools where she was one of very few black children,” as Melissa Fay Greene wrote in the New York Times, she caught the attention of a local philanthropist who heard her speak at a community meeting and offered to pay her college tuition. She was 18.
After a year at Fisk University, she transferred to NYU, then entered Columbia Law School, joining the legal staff of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund before she graduated in 1946.
Working under Thurgood Marshall, with “a mind that had as sharp a cutting edge as any I have known,” as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put it, she was involved in nearly every civil rights case of the era.
She helped write briefs in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; successfully won enrollment for the nine black high school students known as the “Little Rock Nine” at racially segregated Central High in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957; and directed the legal campaign that resulted in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights legend, once identified Constance Baker Motley, as one of two lawyers, along with Marshall, who, in the deep South in the late ’50s and ’60s, “made white segregationists tremble and gave civil rights workers hope.”
In a speech at her memorial service, Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer recalled her as “that woman who was there, briefcase in hand, at Thurgood Marshall’s side, in Birmingham, facing angry and hostile mobs at the risk of his life and her own” and, in the face of such adversity, “that cool professionalism, that fortitude.”
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the federal district court for the Southern District of New York, where, as the first black woman on the federal judiciary, she served for the next four decades.
When she wasn’t, as Daniels put it, “adjourning her courtroom staff for legal discussions” to her 1745 house on Cedar Lake Road in Chester on, among other issues, pay equity for women, the rights of workers, and the humane treatment of prisoners, she was an active participant in the community, and a founding trustee and life member of the Chester Historical Society.
In 2016, the Chester Land Trust purchased a 6.7-acre parcel of her property, directly across the road from her home, and turned it into the Constance Baker Motley Preserve to honor her memory.
“People in town knew Motley, but most of them had no idea of all the things she did,” Daniels said. “She never talked about it. She just knew who she was.”
The dedication, which is open to the public, will take place at 99 Cedar Lake Road in Chester on at 2 p.m. Oct. 6. There will be a reception and house tour.