History museum

Stratford Museum of African American History Captivates Visitors

STRATFORD — A few weeks after the death of his mother, Jeffrey Fletcher, a retired New Haven police officer, received a call from his father.

Calvin Fletcher, Jeffrey’s father, wanted him to come to his home in Colchester to pick up some things his mother had collected.

Jeffrey knew that his mother, Ruby, liked to keep personal items and keepsakes from his youth so that he could one day show his children – things like birthday cards, graduation gowns and gifts he had done in art class.

He was also familiar with his mother’s extensive collection of artifacts from African-American history. She grew up on a sharecropping farm in South Carolina before moving to Connecticut when she was 16. She had collected items through tag sales and other means over time.

What he didn’t know was that she had left him her collection.

“I walked through the den door and I see maybe about 10 of these giant big green rubber bins. And so, I said to my dad, ‘Which one of these is mine?’ “, Fletcher said. “My dad said, ‘It’s not one, there’s six, seven.'”

Each of the bins was filled to the brim with items from her mother’s collection.

Growing up, he said he considered his mother’s collection to be junk. Now he has made it a lifelong passion for storytelling and education.

After spending several years traveling with the artifacts and presenting them to the public, Fletcher opened the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum, sponsored by Shearman and Sterling, LLP., in October. It is located at 952 East Broadway in Stratford.

Since opening its doors, more than 4,300 visitors have passed through its doors, he told the city council last week.

This museum has given his mother’s collection, and subsequent items he has acquired since beginning this project, a permanent brick-and-mortar home. Some of the other artifacts in the museum include chains that were once used on slaves, a Ku Klux Klan hood, and panels used to separate bathrooms and water fountains.

The museum is modeled after the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, but Fletcher wanted to present it in a more personal way.

Being able to touch the artifacts, see the photographs and feel the weight of the chains that were attached to the child slaves was very impactful for Evan Plotkin, a real estate developer from Springfield, Mass.

“When you witness the atrocities that have been committed against black Americans, black men and women, children, it affects you on a cellular level,” Plotkin said. “It’s not something you can live with and walk away from without being impacted.”

Fletcher said he was keen not to let anyone walk through the museum alone, whether accompanied by him or his staff. This meets two objectives: to ensure that the visitor has answered all his questions and to give the museum a human face.

Rather than placing the artifacts behind large glass panels or on chandeliers, Fletcher embeds them in a scene accompanied by sound.

“I put you in the middle of these scenes or exhibits, so when you walk into my museum, each of these exhibits (is something) that everyone feels like they’re a part of,” he said. “You don’t look on the other side of a pole. You are not looking through glass. You are in the middle of the stage with audio in the abstract.

One item adds a personal touch to the museum – a replica of a Starbucks bathroom door, included to recall an incident Fletcher experienced in 2013 while still a police officer, when a cafe employee refused him the access to the bathroom.

“I’m not saying this to make my case, but I’m trying to put a face to what this whole museum is about,” Fletcher explained. “If we’re going to make change and talk about change, then let’s start having those dialogues.”

He said incidents like these, and those his parents have had with discrimination in their lives, only motivate him to make sure the information is presented in the right way. Its overall goal is to educate people about the history that its objects represent.

Two board members, Larry Conaway and Kendell Coker, said they asked Fletcher to present these artifacts to their students before establishing this museum. The reactions were quite similar.

Conaway said all of his students were impressed watching them. Coker said his students also had a “very positive” reaction to them.

“Even students who may be reluctant to it, I think that’s the importance of exposure, to get people to have difficult conversations,” Coker said. “So if the students resist it, I think we can use stuff like that to emphasize that it’s part of the story. And that we can make a lot more progress by working on the dark side of the story. And I think he did a very good job of pushing that dialogue.

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