BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — A retired Bridgeport firefighter who has curated an extensive private collection of slavery artifacts -- with over 4,500 total items — has made it his mission to educate young people about the horrors of slavery.
Craig Kelly, a professional counselor, believes the more people know about their ancestry, “the more respect they’ll have for themselves and the more respect others will have for them."
For this reason, Kelly travels to schools and other institutions to talk slavery and explain some of the items in his collection. Seeing the items in person bring home the horrors of slavery, he said.
“Since slavery occurred such a long time ago, many people may begin to doubt it ever happened and even say, 'Just forget about it, it was so many years ago,'" he said.
Some of his items include Middle Passage shackles, American slave shackles, branding slave irons, runaway slave ankle shackles, slave currency, Ku Klux Klan robes, quilts related to the Underground Railroad, Civil War muster roll belonging to colored troops, Revolutionary War documents, slave documents, abolition newspaper and other notable items.
Yet, Kelly said, the way to understand slavery is not only to acknowledge that it happened but to also learn as much about it as possible.
At a recent Black History Month talk held at Norwalk Community College, Kelly spoke at length about his collection. In an interview after his talk, he spoke about his life.
Kelly, who is 66, was born in Harlem and grew up in the foster care system. He is a father of three children, two of whom he raised by himself.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kelly spent some time with the Black Panther Party, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary.
One of his best memories of his time with the Black Panthers is of serving free breakfast every morning to children who lived in a Bridgeport public housing complex.
"Studies have shown that children performed poorly academically if they didn’t eat breakfast," Kelly said. "Having grown up poor, you empathize with those young kids. I enjoyed interacting with them."
On the topic of Donald Trump, Kelly said the new president might be good for the African-American community “in the sense that it will make them come together as a people to realize that we have to turn to ourselves instead of turn on ourselves.”
During his 27 years with the Bridgeport Fire Department, he organized the Firebirds Society, a paternal order of African-American firefighters. It is a branch of the International Association of black professional firefighters.
"The purpose was to recruit, retain and promote African Americans into the fire service," he said.
Kelly was on the job the day of the L'Ambiance Plaza collapse on April 23, 1987, one of the worst disasters in modern Connecticut history.
He helped to rescue two people "and 28 [construction workers] got killed. It was the largest building collapse in the state of Connecticut," he said.
Now retired, Kelly spends his time giving talks on college campuses about slavery as well as traveling all over to add to his collection of slavery artifacts.
He heads the Original Ancestors, whose mission is to collect, preserve, document and promote artifacts related to the African Holocaust. "The Less you know about someone the less respect you tend to have for them. The less you know about yourself the less respect you tend to have for yourself," Kelly says on the website.
For more information about Original Ancestors, click here.
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