NORWALK, Conn. — While it's one thing to see a picture of a slave being led around in a collar, it’s much more powerful and shocking to see — and touch — a slave collar in person.
As part of Black History Month, Craig Kelly, a Bridgeport resident who owns over 4,500 African-American slavery artifacts, gave a presentation Monday at Norwalk Community College and shared part of his large collection with the students.
His goal was to educate students about items that were commonly used during slavery and to teach them about the terrible conditions slaves were forced to endure.
Understanding history and one’s place in it is critically important “to where you fit in in America, the world, or any place else," said Kelly, 66, a counselor and retired lieutenant of the Bridgeport Fire Department.
“When people are traumatized by an experience, they have to reconnect to their internal pain in understanding that their feelings have meaning — and that we rest on the shoulders of our ancestors,” he said.
He told the students that although slavery was a brutal institution, “we are better in spite of it."
"Out of this whole process, we were able to produce great people," Kelly said.
“If our ancestors can overcome the struggle of slavery, think of how much you can do in your lifetime,” he said.
The event, which was sponsored by the NCC African Culture Club, was attended by over a dozen students.
Kelly brought several dozen artifacts from his collection — which has items dating as far back as the 1600s. They included a monkey wrench quilt, a cotton scale, a branding iron and a wrist shackle. For each item, he gave a brief description of how and why it was used.
He also showed a Ku Klux Klan robe with a label sewn on that inside that said that it came from Shelton.
“The KKK was very heavy in Connecticut. Its purpose was to inflict and intimidate African people,” Kelly said, adding that the organization is as dangerous now as it was back then.
Kelly has traveled across the country, including to Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Virginia, to gather items for his collection.
“I have friends who live in many of these states. They know about my collection and give me a call whenever they see something that I might be interested in,” he said. “I am always on the lookout for more.”