Twenty-one years after Jeffrey Fletcher inherited his mother’s vast, unique collection of artifacts representing her years growing up in the racially repressive South, he finally found a place where he could showcase it for the public.
You might wonder why the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum — named in honor of Jeffrey’s parents — wound 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 commitment of a progressive law firm.
His mother died in 2000 after living in Colchester her entire adult life. Shortly after her death, Fletcher’s dad called him to the house and said she had wanted him to inherit the collection. “I’d called it bric-a-brac, junk,” he admits. “When my dad showed me about 10 of these giant bins, all packed and labeled, I thought: ‘Why did she leave all these things for me? How do they have any relevance for my life? My God, what am I going to do with this?’ ”
But after Fletcher started going through those boxes, unearthing a Little Black Sambo game, a sign for the Coon Chicken Inn, an 1860 New Orleans newspaper with ads for “Negroes for Sale,” and another box containing slave shackles and a whip, he knew these shocking objects needed to be shown. My mantra is: ‘I can show you better than I can tell you,’ ” Fletcher says. “And I can’t tell you the story without showing you these oppressive objects.”
Fletcher says when people come to see the collection, “I want to make it as simple as possible. I don’t want it to be viewed from a distance, behind glass. I try to immerse you in history. I’ll take you on a journey.”
He brings me into a room with wooden planks, a shackled figure lying in straw and the recorded sounds of women weeping 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 those ships. Adjoining text lists the total number of African people taken captive: 12,521,000. “Really horrific numbers, right?” Fletcher asks. “This is an estimate. There are no exact numbers. Fifteen percent of them died en route.”
In a nearby room, Fletcher says: “Now you’ve landed in the South on a plantation.” The objects on display include a spiked metal punishment device labeled “for uncontrollable slaves” and the whip Ruby Fletcher bought so long ago.
The Daily Tribune Delta is exhibited with ads seeking “Runaway Slaves” (a $10 reward) and “Slaves!” for sale. The prices ranged from $100 to $1,300.
Fletcher has also constructed a room representing a movie theater in the South during the Jim Crow era. Behind a railing are three chairs and a sign: “Colored must sit in balcony.” Gone with the Wind plays on a continuous loop.
Fletcher then unveils the more positive exhibits: a shrine for the Tuskegee Airmen, a distinguished but segregated unit in World War II; a civil rights room with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech. But there is also a “colored” water fountain and a large jar filled with jelly beans. Blacks seeking to vote faced the impossible test of guessing exactly how many jelly beans 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 record albums (Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, the Platters, etc.) and two electric guitars built by Calvin Fletcher.
“My dad grew up in North Carolina and my mom in South Carolina,” Fletcher says. “My mom lived on a sharecropper’s farm and was forced to work the fields as a child. She used whatever money she saved to buy ‘Mammy’ dolls and ‘Colored Only’ signs.
“She came to Colchester in 1940 at age 16. A Jewish family, the Dembers, took her in. They taught her never to forget where she came from.”
And so she kept collecting Jim Crow artifacts, buying them at tag sales and second-hand stores.
After Fletcher retired, “I was looking to see where my passion was. I was seeing my mother’s vision, trying to plan how I could present it.”
In 2002 he began taking parts of the collection on the road, showing it at schools and other local venues. Enter Devney Worsdale, a Stratford mom with kids at the Saint James School. When she learned about Fletcher’s collection she contacted him and suggested he bring it to that school. “It was amazing,” she recalls. “One of the teachers told me: ‘He taught the kids as much in two hours as I could in two years.’
“And I thought: ‘Perhaps there’s an opportunity here.’ God put it in my heart to email our mayor (Laura Hoydick). I asked her: ‘Would you be open to Stratford being home to an African American history museum?’ ” 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 afterward. Worsdale wasn’t deterred. She learned Russell was related to Stratford native John Sterling, who in 1873 co-founded the law firm Shearman & Sterling, now a global enterprise. “I cold-called the law firm, and its general counsel William Roll called me back.” Roll was enthusiastic about the house becoming a civil rights museum.
Eventually the town of Stratford bought the Sterling house for it to become that museum. But it had to be renovated. Since the town also owned another house nearby at 952 East Broadway, a part of the collection went there temporarily, with 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 the main sponsor and Liz O’Rourke and Christine LaCroix, who help with day-to-day operations at the museum.
When the museum moves to the Sterling house next year, Fletcher will finally be able to bring 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 garb to another white racist.)
When I ask Fletcher how his mother would react to seeing her collection on display to the public, he replies: “I think she would be proud of me.”