The Charger Blog

Alumnus’s Museum Creates Immersive African American History Experience

Jeffrey Fletcher ’79 has expanded the collection of African American artifacts his mother started decades earlier, establishing a museum in Stratford, Conn., to ensure that the pieces tell a story to enhance education of African American history.

January 28, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Jeffrey Fletcher ’79 at the museum’s entrance.
Jeffrey Fletcher ’79 at the museum’s entrance.

When Jeffrey Fletcher ’79 was a student-athlete at the University of New Haven, he would return home on breaks to find in his bedroom pieces from his mother’s collection of items related to African American history. At the time, she had more than 300 items, and Fletcher thought of it as “junk.”

When his mother died, she left the collection to Fletcher and his siblings. He brought the items, meticulously arranged in green Rubbermaid bins, home and laid the pieces out on his basement floor. When his daughter asked him what he planned to do with them, he told her he was going to throw them out. He then felt a sharp, excruciating pain in his neck.

“At that point I had what was almost like an epiphany,” said Fletcher, who was a member of the Chargers basketball team for four years. “I jumped, and I said, ‘Something just happened in my neck.’ My daughter said, ‘No, it’s Granny telling you not to get rid of her stuff.’”

Fletcher listened. After more than 20 years as a member of the New Haven Police Department, Fletcher was transitioning into retirement. He wondered if, perhaps, his mother wanted her collection to tell a story, and if this could be his focus during his retirement.

Ruby Fletcher’s record collection
Ruby Fletcher’s record collection
‘It was like magic’

After growing up in the Jim Crow south in the 1930s and 1940s, Fletcher’s parents Ruby and Calvin Fletcher migrated to the north and raised their children in Colchester, Conn. Ruby, who grew up on a sharecropper’s property, began at an early age to collect artifacts related to African American history. Continuing to add to her collection throughout her adult life, she often brought her husband with her to estate sales. Although Ruby never catalogued her items, Fletcher says it was always neat and uniformly put away.

The signs on these bathroom doors enforced segregation in the Jim Crow south.
The signs on these bathroom doors enforced segregation in the Jim Crow south.

Fletcher began sharing the collection and the story it told, thus beginning what would be the next chapter in his own story. Bringing the pieces to civic organizations and schools – including the University of New Haven in early 2020 – he gave presentations and discussed the history and importance of the items. He wanted members of his audience to see and touch the pieces, to experience their significance.

“Students were often in disbelief that people were placed in oppressive shackles and that Jim Crow laws really existed,” he explains. “It seemed unreal to them. There was a disconnect from what they were seeing versus what they were being taught in school. I think it resonated, it hit home. It was like magic. They said, ‘These restraints were this heavy? These shackles and oppressive devices were on a child? On a human being?’”

Continuing his mother’s work, Fletcher has grown the collection to approximately 5,500 pieces. The collection includes items from throughout African American history, such as bathroom doors and drinking fountains that “colored” men and women had to use in the Jim Crow south, uniforms worn by Tuskegee airmen, and chairs from the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store where four African American college students staged a sit-in after they were refused service – a moment that helped ignite a movement to challenge racial inequality.

“You don’t clean these objects up or wipe them down because they come from the original location geographically where they were buried or hidden,” Fletcher explains. “This way, people can see that they were not manufactured by me. The best thing we can do is learn from our past, and that’s why I’m here, so we can have open dialogues and discussions.”

Jeffrey Fletcher ’79 inside the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum.
Jeffrey Fletcher ’79 inside the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum.
‘You’re not just coming and looking from afar’

Concerned that continually transporting the artifacts would take a toll on their integrity, Fletcher started thinking about displaying them in a brick and mortar facility. He created the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum – named for Fletcher’s parents – in Stratford, Conn., drawing inspiration from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

A jar filled with jelly beans.
"Colored" voters had to guess how many jelly beans were in the jar before they could vote.

“It was overwhelming to me to see so much history,” he said. “As I was walking through the museum, I was saying, ‘Wait a minute, I have that! I’ve got that!’ It started to click for me. I was bitten by that same bug my mom had.”

Committed to telling the story of African Americans from the beginning, Fletcher made sure the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum’s exhibits, which take visitors on a journey through time, beginning in 1619 when the first Africans were brought to what is now the United States. He collaborated with the Rhode Island School of Design to tell the story of four centuries of history.

The museum, a historic house built in the late 1700s, has been set up so that visitors can walk through the exhibits chronologically. It creates an immersive experience with visual representations of history, including preserved newspapers and clothing, and audio such as a re-creation of the sounds of a ship transporting Africans to be sold as slaves.

“I feel as though I’m the master chef,” explains Fletcher. “As the meal is brought to the table, I’m serving a food critic, because I see everyone who visits the museum as a critic. I stand back, and I want to see their response, their reactions, after they come through, and they’ve been impressed.

“In each of the spaces, I tried to put the visitors inside of what was going on during that time,” he continued. “You’re not just coming and looking from afar at things, but you’re actually in the middle. You have interactive audio and visuals going and signage to give you a better sense of the context of what you’re viewing.”

Seats from the 'colored' section of a theater.
Seats from the "colored" section of a theater.
‘It’s a part of time and history’

Passionate about telling a more immersive and accurate story of African American history, Fletcher hopes to tell a different narrative from the one he read about in his textbooks when he was a kid. He remembers “horrendous” imagery of African Americans depicted as “subhuman, and primatelike” in certain units in history class at school.

“It was always embarrassing, especially growing up in a predominantly white community,” recalls Fletcher. “It was always a bad time for me and for most African Americans when that part of the curriculum came up. It was hard to sit in there and be the only African American child in that class, always looking around and wondering if your peers are going to be laughing, making fun, or saying that looks like you.”

For Fletcher, it is critical that everyone who sees the collection can learn from it in a way that is safe and free of judgment. Viewing himself as the messenger, he wants to make sure no one internalizes what they see and hear. He wants the pieces to be educational and to tell a story, inspiring thought without blame.

“I think with cancel culture, people are fearful that their children are going to be placed in a situation where they’re going to feel it is their fault for slavery, lynching, violations of civil rights,” he explains. “I want everyone in every group that comes in to know that what they are about to see is no one in the group’s fault. It’s a part of time and history that we went through, and I think you have to be really careful with how that information is presented – whether to Black or white children.”

A whip and restraints that were used on slaves.
A whip and restraints that were used on slaves.
‘This can serve as a model for educational institutions’

If Fletcher is the master chef of this project, then the museum is just his appetizer. After building a strong relationship with the mayor of Stratford and with Shearman & Sterling LLP, an international law firm and the museum’s sponsor, he is planning to move the museum to a much larger building.

The former homestead of John W. Sterling, a lawyer and co-founder of Shearman & Sterling LLP, the building will house Fletcher’s collection and more. In the new space, just a short walk from the present building, Fletcher will enhance and enlarge the displays and include more interactive videos.

“It will be exciting to move and a challenge as well because there is so much history that needs to be told,” said Fletcher. “We will be able to tell a much bigger story.”

Fletcher hopes the museum will be a gamechanger for education. He hopes current University of New Haven students will visit the museum, which is free of charge, and get involved. Working with the museum’s Board of Directors, Fletcher collaborates with a team of leaders who are dedicated to preserving history and enhancing education – including University of New Haven professors Danielle Cooper, Ph.D., CPP, and Kendell Coker, Ph.D., J.D.

“This can serve as a model for educational institutions, whether high school or post-high school, because so many people are struggling with where to start the conversation,” said Fletcher. “I think this is a model that can enhance that discussion. We are hoping that educational institutions use this as a means to start the conversation and include it as part of the curriculum. Let’s not just make this an elective. Let’s make it a prerequisite to moving on, moving ahead.”

The museum's Tuskegee airmen exhibit.
The museum's Tuskegee airmen exhibit.