KKK hood among items at retired New Haven cop’s new African American history museum in Stratford

Jeffrey Fletcher’s roots run deep in Connecticut. The Colchester native was a student-athlete at the University of New Haven, where he earned a degree in psychology that he put to use for the State of Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health. He went on to become a 21-year veteran of the New Haven police department, and now, the Branford resident has extended his Nutmeg State roots to Stratford with the opening of a new African American history museum. 

Fletcher opened the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum on Oct. 30, a “collection of artifacts which which reflect decades of turbulent times for African Americans in the United States during the period of slavery and the Civil Rights movement,” according to its website. The museum showcases items such as a Ku Klux Klan hood — one that he obtained by posed online as a supporter of the Klan's beliefs — slave collars and photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that highlight a shared past among Black people in the U.S. Fletcher said it was this shared past and along with his own family history that spurred the idea to create the museum.

“It stems from my mom and dad, who grew up in South Carolina during the pre-Jim Crow Civil Rights era,” he said. “My mom was the main person who started picking up items as a youth as she left the South, escaping Jim Crow and its ugly laws”

Fletcher said his mother was one of seven children who lived on a sharecropping farm with her parents when she decided at age 16 to move North. After his parents married and had four children, Fletcher said his mother continued collecting artifacts, often going to tag sales and estate sales or receiving items with historic ties from people as gifts. When she died, Fletcher said she left him with large storage containers filled with all the objects she had collected during her lifetime. But he didn’t immediately have the idea to create a museum with the items. 

“At that point, I had a notion to just kind of like box them up and give them away,” Fletcher recalled. “And then something came over me and I just said, ‘You know what? There's a little bit more behind this collection.’ This was her life — she was telling her life story through these objects. And I felt that we needed to preserve them, as well as tell the story that she would have wanted people to know.”

He first took his collection on the road in presentations to schools and civic organizations, Fletcher said. Seeing the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. was the spark Fletcher said he needed to transform his traveling presentations into the Northeast’s version of the national museum. 

Fletcher said he found a receptive audience in Stratford Mayor Laura Hoydick and a brick-and-mortar location on 952 East Broadway in a 1789-built home. He also got the museum sponsored by Shearman & Sterling, LLP., a law firm at which Stratford native John W. Sterling was named partner in 1870. Sterling later built a mansion in Stratford in 1886, according to the New England Historical Society, that is now the Sterling House Community Center. 

Displaying items as part of the theme “Images of America/Challenges of the Badge,” the museum is now showing just some of the pieces of the more than 5,000 Fletcher has collected. The collection highlights the motivations of the “trailblazers and pioneers who forged the way for equality as well as freedom for African Americans today,” according to the museum website. For Fletcher, the current display would not be complete without one particular item — and one he had to use his police background to track down: an authentic Ku Klux Klan hood. 

Drawing on the investigatory skills he developed while in law enforcement, Fletcher said he concealed his identity and tracked down an 83-year-old former Klansman from North Carolina, with whom he formed an amicable relationship.

“I told him when he asked me why I was looking for that type of article of clothing that I was a white person who wanted to educate and to continue the philosophy of that Klan so that our young white kinds can understand that there’s heritage there and there’s superiority,” he said. “At that point, we started talking over a period of probably five months, but communication was over the Internet — we never had any physical meetings.” 

The relationship reached its crescendo when Fletcher’s contact said he could sell the hood, but the transaction was not without hiccups. Fletcher said he accidentally called him in trying to work out the details of sale, which took place at a FedEx facility, and the man began questioning Fletcher’s racial identity. 

“He had detected something [in my speech] that I wasn’t white, but I had to explain to him that I lived in Texas and lived in Maryland, so that’s what he was hearing,” he said. “I instructed him to put the hood in a package in the hands of the FedEx person at the counter, but don’t close it up or wrap it up. Give the FedEx person your phone, so I can authenticate whether it's in there.”

The FedEx employee verified that the hood was in the package, Fletcher said, and once the box was sealed and the phone returned to the seller, Fletcher paid via Western Union for the item. Once the payment was validated, Fletcher said he was still on the phone with the seller when he admitted his true identity.

“So when I told him who I was and what I was, he just went into another zone and just went ballistic,” he said. “But there was nothing he could do because he could not trace my URL because I was doing it in the guise of policing.”

It is through artifacts like the KKK hood and others that Fletcher said his museum and its exhibits aim not to reopen old wounds, but instead to educate by displaying and discussing the tough pieces that are part of American history.

“I'm here to say that this history is rich,” he said. “It is affirmation that it happened. And let's talk about this so that it won't be repeated — in my lifetime, my daughter's lifetime, her children's lifetime. Let's talk about this, because that's the only way that we're going to learn about what's going on and not to repeat history.”

The museum is open Monday through Thursday and on Saturdays, and admission is free.