Though the civil rights movement ended almost half a decade ago, remnants of the time period still remain today as part of an exhibit at Southern Connecticut University.
The exhibit, “Images of America,” features items and pictures from periods of slavery, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement. All of these items were accumulated by Jeffrey Fletcher, a New Haven resident and retired police officer who has been collecting these historical artifacts in order to depict the history of African-Americans. Fletcher said he hopes the exhibit will encourage people to talk about America’s controversial past instead of attempting to ignore the racism that was and still is present in today’s society.
“This history, it’s not fiction,” Fletcher said. “These instruments, pictures, mythical characters that are in the exhibit and the signs, the Ku Klux Klan hood and robe, all of that is part of our United States, and it didn’t just happen in Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia. It happened across the country.”
Fletcher’s mother established the collection, frequenting tax and estate sales to buy what Fletcher believed at the time were only “junk or knick-knacks.” However, when she passed away and gave her collection to Fletcher, he realized that she had been collecting remnants of the Jim Crow era that she lived through and that these items told a powerful story of segregation and pain.
Ever since, Fletcher has been collecting pieces to add to his mother’s original collection. He now has at least 3,000 items.
Included in the exhibit are “Whites only” and “Colored only” water fountains from a public restroom, which Fletcher has left in their original states to show the difference in cleanliness of the two pieces. There are also Jim Crow-era signs, an original Tuskegee airman uniform, original photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. and much more.
Fletcher said that because of the shocking nature of some of the items in his collection, he has received backlash from those who claim it is unnecessary to dig up this racist past. He added that at a speaking event, a woman once asked Fletcher how he could be certain that once African American children walked out of his exhibit, they would not immediately begin assaulting white people because of the horrific imagery they had seen, something Fletcher thought was an unfair question.
Fletcher said he responded by asking whether the woman thought that Jewish children who visited a Holocaust museum would behave in the same way towards Aryan people. He noted that such a belief perpetuates racial stereotypes and myths and assumes African American children cannot process their own history without associating it with violence.
“This is not about hating,” Fletcher said. “It’s about discussing a history that has been buried for so long.”
One particularly memorable item is the original Ku Klux Klan robe and hood that Fletcher obtained from a current Klan member. In the display case, the robe is placed on a mannequin with a noose hung over its shoulder. Lisa Kereszki, a photography professor at Yale who took her “Introduction to Black and White Photography” class to the exhibit, said she was most surprised by the Klan robe especially due to its quality.
“The Klan robe is really cheap. It’s really thin, and the fabric is really chintzy,” Kereszki said. “It’s really just as crummy as a Halloween costume you would get at Walmart. … It’s sort of perfect that this instrument of hate, this cloak of hate, is actually just completely false.”
While it is not visible, underneath the robe the mannequin is dressed in a full police uniform and badge. As a retired police officer, Fletcher hopes to convey a message to other officers that this is how they are often viewed by the African American community.
Fletcher recently ran a three-day seminar with the East Haven Police Department to teach about cultural awareness, and on the last day, he brought the robe and uniform as part of his presentation.
“This is how you look,” Fletcher said to the officers at the seminar. “This is how African-Americans perceive you to look.”
Another item Kereszki found particularly powerful is a painting of a man whose back has been torn up by a whip. This painting is part of the slavery display case and is placed next to several pictures depicting the horrors of slavery, such as images of slaves who have been hung from trees, as well as multiple sets of original slave shackles.
La Tanya Autry, a Yale University Art Gallery coordinator, said she was most affected by the exhibit’s reminder of how racist acts such as these were just a standard part of life in such recent history.
“This [racist behavior] was normal not actually that long ago,” Autry said. “It was just a normal part of American culture. … [This collection] is a warning. It shows us what happened, and it shows us why we have a lot of problems now.”
Fletcher’s exhibit is on display until Dec. 16.