Connecticut’s first African-American history museum contains artifacts from a painful past, but also moments of hope

Twenty-one years after Jeffrey Fletcher inherited his mother’s vast and unique collection of artifacts depicting his growing up years in the racially repressive South, he finally found a place where he could present it to the public.

You might wonder why the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher Museum of African American History – named for Jeffrey’s parents – ended up in Stratford rather than New Haven, Hartford or Bridgeport. The answer is simple: a Stratford mother and the town’s mayor embraced the idea. Fletcher also benefited from the engagement of a progressive law firm.

For more information about the museum, call 203-506-9035 or visit http://www.africanamericancollections.com. If you would like Fletcher to do an exhibit at your school or organization, call 203-843-3102.


But first, Fletcher, a retired New Haven police officer, had to realize the value and power of his mother’s collection. “I didn’t expect to get this; it was a total surprise,” Fletcher says, sitting in his office at the museum.

His mother died in 2000 after living in Colchester all her adult life. Shortly after his death, Fletcher’s father called him at home and told him she wanted him to inherit the collection. “I called it bric-a-brac, junk,” he admits. “When my dad showed me about 10 of these giant bins, all wrapped up and labelled, I thought, ‘Why did she leave me all these things? How do they have any relevance to my life? My God, what am I going to do with this?”

But after Fletcher started going through those boxes, digging up a Little Black Sambo game, a sign for the Coon Chicken Inn, an 1860 New Orleans newspaper with advertisements for “Negroes for Sale,” and another box containing slave chains and a whip, he knew these shocking objects had to be shown. My mantra is, “I can show you more than I can tell you,” says Fletcher. “And I can’t tell you the story without showing you these oppressive objects.”

Fletcher says that when people come to see the collection, “I want to make it as simple as possible. I don’t want it to be seen from afar, behind glass. I try to immerse you in the story. I will take you on a trip.

He leads me into a room with planks of wood, a chained figure lying in the straw, and the recorded sounds of women crying and men moaning. “Now you’re in the hull of a slave ship,” Fletcher says. On one wall of the room is a large map showing the routes of these ships. The attached text lists the total number of captured Africans: 12,521,000. “Really horrific numbers, aren’t they?” Fletcher asks. “It’s an estimate. There are no exact figures. Fifteen percent of them died along the way.

In an adjoining room, Fletcher says, “Now you’ve landed in the South on a plantation.” Items on display include a spiked metal punishment device labeled “for uncontrollable slaves” and the whip that Ruby Fletcher bought so long ago.

the Daily Grandstand Delta is featured with ads searching for “Runaway Slaves” (a $10 reward) and “Slaves!” for sale. Prices ranged from $100 to $1,300.

Fletcher also built a room representing a movie theater in the South during the Jim Crow era. Behind a railing are three chairs and a sign: “People of color must sit on the balcony.” carried away by the wind plays in a continuous loop.

Fletcher then unveils the most positive exhibits: a sanctuary for Tuskegee Airmen, a distinguished but isolated unit during World War II; a civil rights hall with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. giving a speech. But there is also a “colored” water fountain and a large jar filled with sugared almonds. Black people looking to vote faced the impossible test of guessing exactly how much candy the jar contained.

The final room features two walls covered with influencers in African American history, including Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Aretha Franklin, Muhammad Ali, Emmett Till, and Toni Morrison. Opposite them is a display of Ruby Fletcher’s favorite albums (Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, the Platters, etc.) and two electric guitars made by Calvin Fletcher.

“My dad grew up in North Carolina and my mom in South Carolina,” says Fletcher. “My mother lived on a sharecropper’s farm and was forced to work in the fields as a child. She used all the money she had saved to buy “Mammy” dolls and “Colored Only” signs.

“She arrived in Colchester in 1940 at the age of 16. A Jewish family, the Dembers, took her in. They taught her never to forget where she came from.”

And so she continued to collect Jim Crow artifacts, buying them at tag sales and thrift stores.

After Fletcher retired, “I was trying to figure out where my passion was. I saw my mother’s vision, I tried to plan how I could present it.

In 2002 he began taking parts of the collection on the road, showing them at schools and other local venues. Enter Devney Worsdale, a mother from Stratford with children at Saint James School. When she heard about Fletcher’s collection, she contacted him and suggested that he bring it to this school. “It was amazing,” she recalls. “One of the teachers said to me, ‘He taught the kids as much in two hours as I could in two years.’

“And I thought, ‘Maybe there’s an opportunity here.’ God put it on my heart to email our mayor (Laura Hoydick) I asked her, ‘Would you be open in Stratford housing a museum of African American history?'” In March 2019 , Hoydick met with Fletcher and Worsdale. “There was electricity at that meeting,” Worsdale says. “I knew it was going to happen.”

But where to house the collection? Worsdale admired the Sterling Homestead at 2225 Main St. and tracked down the owner, Cynthia Russell. Although Russell liked the idea of ​​sharing her home, she died soon after. Worsdale was undeterred. She learned that Russell was related to Stratford native John Sterling, who in 1873 co-founded the Shearman & Sterling law firm, now a global business. “I cold called the law firm, and their general counsel William Roll called me back.” Roll was enthusiastic about the house becoming a civil rights museum.

Eventually, the town of Stratford purchased the Sterling House for use as this museum. But it needed to be renovated. As the city also had another house nearby at 952 East Broadway, part of the collection moved there temporarily, with the doors opening to the public last October. “It’s like a ‘field of dreams,'” Worsdale says. “‘If you build it, they will come.’ It will be a place of healing.”

Fletcher is deeply grateful to Worsdale, Hoydick, the law firm as lead sponsors, and Liz O’Rourke and Christine LaCroix, who help with the day-to-day operations of the museum.

When the museum moves into the Sterling House next year, Fletcher will finally be able to pull the rest of the collection out of storage and put it on full display. The most notorious item: a red-stained Ku Klux Klan robe and hood he bought from a Southern pastor for $600. (The pastor thought he was selling the costume to another white racist.)

When I ask Fletcher how his mother would react to seeing his collection on public display, he replies, “I think she would be proud of me.

Randall Beach is a former columnist and reporter for the New Haven Registry. His essays are on substack.com, and he can be reached at [email protected].


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