"Stetson Stories" Weave Memory Into Magic

Lucy Gellman | January 31st, 2023

Culture & Community  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Free Public Library  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Black Haven

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Hanan Hameen. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Educator Hanan Hameen coached attendees in a call-and-response, one hand gliding through the air as the other gripped the mic. I love myself! Down deep inside! She smiled and swayed to the words. I love my hair! And I love my eyes! She crossed the black-and-white checkered floor. I love my nose! And I love my lips!

She was beaming out at the audience, a warm glow that filled up the whole space. I also love! My ten fingertips!  

The founder and director of Artsucation Academy Network, Hameen brought that song to 200 Dixwell Avenue Saturday afternoon for “Stetson Stories,” a celebration of the old Stetson Branch Library from Black Haven Independent Theater and Entertainment (BITE). The brainchild of artist and Black Haven founder Salwa Abdussabur—who grew up in the library—the event became an intimate display of how memories are built and preserved. 

“We saved some lives here,” said Stetson Branch Manager Diane Brown, who began her tenure as branch manager under the late City Librarian James Welbourne in 2006, and now works in the branch’s new building across the street. “I’m just grateful that I’m the person the creator put in this position.”

“This is our Schomburg,” said artist Shaunda Holloway, who later recalled seeing the poet Abiodun Oyewole speak at Stetson. “It was an experience that I can’t even put into words.”

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Stetson Branch Manager Diane Brown: "We saved some lives here."

In over a century in Dixwell, the Stetson Branch Library has lived many lives, and indeed saved many too. In 1917, it opened as the Dixwell Avenue Branch Library at 213 Division St., around where the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail now cuts through Science Park. Five years later in 1922, it moved to Dixwell Avenue and Thompson Street, close to where Mt. Hope Temple stands today. 

It relocated to the Dixwell Plaza in 1968, where it remained open until 2021. For its final two decades, Brown turned the building into a safe space for the neighborhood’s kids, with free chess classes, after-school and extracurricular programming, homework help, African drum and dance lessons, neighborhood concerts, and even skate clinics outdoors. It moved last year, after the Connecticut Community Outreach Revitalization Program (ConnCORP) announced plans to demolish the plaza for a mixed-use neighborhood hub called ConnCAT Place. 

Last year, Stetson opened its doors just across Dixwell Avenue, as a two-story anchor of the new Dixwell Community Q House. Among new tech equipment, immaculate conference and meeting rooms, sun-soaked book nooks and a floor specifically for young readers, its crown jewel is a 25,000-book African Diaspora collection. 

And yet, people miss the old building, with its exposed brick, weathered carpet and rattling tin ceiling. Not because it was fancy, but because it was home. 

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Arden Santana, who got her start as an educator at Stetson. 

That was the space Arden Santana conjured as she stood to speak, the air around her already thick with memory. As a kid in New Haven, “I grew up in this library,” Santana said. She credits her late grandmother, Patricia Ruth Boyd, with bringing her into the space and encouraging her to find a home among the hundreds of books that lined the stacks.

It encouraged Santana to pursue a career dedicated to education, she said—a career in which she is still firmly rooted. In 2001, Santana caught the teaching bug as a language arts educator in Maryland, then went back to school for her undergraduate and later graduate degrees. Saturday, she remembered walking into a science class at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), delighted to see that Brown and her son, Joncie, were also enrolled. She knew instantly that it meant the class would be more fun.  

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Santana Brightly, who has found a second home at Stetson.

When Santana graduated, the library remained a vibrant part of her life. While teaching in the New Haven Public Schools, she helped run Stetson’s then-nascent Saturday Youth Academy, and grew her own educational footprint both in and out of the classroom. After resigning from the city’s school system, she created a homeschooling curriculum that grew into the early groundwork for SĀHGE Academy. In 2019, she officially launched SĀGHE, an independent school that she founded with her daughters.

Last June, the new Stetson Branch supported her first open house for SĀHGE. The library is the only place that her daughters are allowed to walk to by themselves, she added, because she knows how safe they are there.

Already, it has left the same deep impact on them: her daughter Santana Brightly recalled making a vision board in the library, and later placing it in her room, where she could keep an eye on it.   

“They have the chance to experience the library their mother grew up in,” Santana said. “It’s not the physical building. It’s the people in it.” 

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Ella Smith: "You came to Stetson to learn."

That was true for Ms. Ella Smith, who has known the building since it was on Dixwell Avenue and Thompson Street. As a child and later as a teen, “I was always going to Stetson,” Smith remembered. "You came to Stetson to learn."

It was where she fell in love with books, and later brought her own children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. During her time working as a stock sprayer for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, it was a peaceful refuge. In retirement, she brings her grandchildren and great-grandchildren there, and visits weekly for new books. She said that she's still thinking about They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, the last book she checked out.  

When she took the mic, she turned to Brown with a twinkle in her eye. 

“I’ve always wanted to ask you—” she started and paused. She asked Brown how many people she and her mother together had impacted. Brown’s mother was the late Lillian Brown, a Newhallville matriarch who passed away in 2018 at the age of 100. Brown didn't need to guess an answer: it was thousands of people, over many generations.     

As she told her story, Stetson felt reverent. From Thompson Street to both sides of Dixwell Avenue, Smith still thinks of Stetson as her branch of the New Haven Free Public Library. When her grandchildren and great-grandchildren visit, they still want to come to the library. That’s true even for her eldest granddaughter, who is now 33 and can still lose herself among the stacks. 

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Shafiq Abdussabur, who has been coming to Stetson for decades. 

Many described it as a haven for thousands of young people—and often, their parents and families too. Beaver Hills resident and Mayoral Candidate Shafiq Abdussabur, who has been coming to the library alone since he was six or seven, remembered walking in through the back doors, and feeling instantly safe. 

Growing up in the Florence Virtue Homes, Stetson was the only place he and his friends were allowed to go by themselves. With a hitch in his voice, Abdussabur asked for a moment of silence for the young people in the city who were not afforded the chance to grow up. He added a moment for Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers earlier this month. 

The child of a postal worker and a teacher’s aide, Abdussabur described Stetson as his home away from home. It was where he fell in love with books, learned to play chess, and later returned to read and chat with friends after his daily routes as a paperboy. Beaming, he remembered becoming a student librarian during his youth, and thinking it was the coolest job in the world.  

“It gave me self-worth,” he said. As he became an adult, Abdussabur kept coming to Stetson—this time as a father of young children and a police officer early in his career. When the Q House closed across the street, Brown came to him with the news, ready to brainstorm. He remembered hearing her quiet, stern voice, and knowing that it was serious. 

“She said, ‘Shafiq, the Q House is closing. We gotta save our babies,’” he remembered. That conversion gave birth to years of collaborations, from the Urban Think Tank to book signings with artist Winfred Rembert to a Saturday chess academy that continues today across the street. His family now has three generations of Stetson patrons,including two who are under three years old. 

“We was just trying to save kids,” he said. “We wasn’t trying to be famous.”

Hameen echoed that sentiment as she spoke, finishing with a song from the “Africa Is Me” curriculum she introduced to the library several years ago (listen above). Born and raised in the Bronx, she grew up visiting family in New Haven, including a cousin who brought storytelling to the library. For years, she delighted in Stetson while building her career as an educator and artist in New York. 

Then in 2010, she was diagnosed with Lupus. Her whole world screeched to a halt. 

“I had to pack up my whole life and move to New Haven,” she remembered. There were days when she was so weak she could barely move. After spending her whole life dancing, she became depressed. 

In August 2012, she saw that there was a dance party at Stetson. Her mom insisted that they go. It was the best decision she could have made, she said. 

“We just connected here in the dance floor,” she said. “The pain went away.”

At the time, Hameen was living with her parents on Munson Street, and saw violence happening in the neighborhood. In conversations with Brown—or “Auntie Diane,” as she said sweetly several times Saturday—she began to think of a program that taught youth about the history of African dance and the sheer breadth of a diaspora. She wanted them to see what she saw, she said: that their melanated skin was beautiful. 

It birthed her first “Africa Is Me” class, a lesson in dance and drumming that was meant to run once a year. Patrons asked for it to come back, and was soon running once a month. Hameen remembered a group of teens who would stand by the door and watch, until one day they finally came in. 

“That’s just the space that Stetson is,” she said. “It lets you in and it welcomes you and it meets you where you are … it’s a place where you can always come and you can always evolve.”

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Rev. Dr. Marcia L. Smith, who remembered seeing Lucy Anne Hurston, the living niece of author Zora Neale Hurston, speak at the library. 

Mike Morand, who is now president of the New Haven Free Public Library Foundation’s board, remembered walking into the library years ago, and seeing former Officer Billy White talking to a group of teens. Within earshot, it sounded like White—who later pleaded guilty to taking federal funds, accepting bribes, and gambling—was trying to scare his young listeners straight. 

A teen approached him, not entirely buying it.  “What do you do if the cops plant the drugs on you?” he asked nonchalantly. White went wide-eyed. 

The jig was up, Morand said: this teen wasn’t afraid to call White out on his history of wrongdoing in the department. Saturday, he marveled at how comfortable the young man must have felt in a space like Stetson to be able to say it. 

“I Think Of How Alive It Was” 

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Top: Diane Brown with former City Librarian John Jessen, who passed in May of last year, during a talk with the sculptor Dana King in 2021. Lucy Gellman File Photo. Bottom: Young Minds and Family Librarian Phillip Modeen.

At some point, Brown herself rose to speak, sorting through decades of memories in just seconds. She started exactly a decade ago. In winter 2013, she asked the now-late Connie Nappier, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, to come and speak at Stetson. Twice, Nappier rescheduled because of the New England winter weather, which made it dangerous for him to travel from New Britain. 

The third time, he told her that he was coming, no matter the weather. 

She set up 120 chairs, which was what the library would hold. Four hundred people showed up. Brown made a call, and soon two fire marshals were posted at the doors. She watched, wowed, as Nappier told his story, then took dozens of questions at the audience. 

Towards the end of the visit, a Black pilot rose from the audience, approached the front of the room, and saluted Nappier. Then he unclipped his wings and pinned them on Nappier’s jacket. It was his way of thanking Nappier for paving the way, Brown remembered. 

“I was done,” Brown said. She went into her office, closed the door, and cried.  

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Brown at a CD release party for Chris "Big Dog" Davis' album "Focus" in summer 2020, outside the library. Lucy Gellman File Photo.

There have been so many times like that, Brown said—where she’s worked to build a space for the community, and the community has shown up. She praised Edward Trimble and Sean Reeves for their vision behind S.P.O.R.T. Academy, which for years ran chess clubs out of the library and is now restarting across the street. She smiled while speaking about Christmas concerts from musician Chris “Big Dog” Davis, including a Rudolph remix that has since become a piece of New Haven’s sonic history.  

She remembered welcoming violinist Jerald Daemyon to the library for a master class in 2016, and watching him play alongside young students from Music Haven one at a time. At some point, a little boy insisted that he couldn’t play. Daemyon wasn’t having it. The musician handed him his own violin—a professional instrument that was synonymous with his livelihood—and coaxed him to try. 

It was like Superman handing over his cape, Brown recalled. The student, convinced that he now possessed some of Daemyon’s magic, began to sound out notes one at a time. She could see the change that came over him; he now believed he could do it. When the class was over, she went into her office and cried, so moved by the trust and belief she had witnessed.

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The old Stetson Branch in spring/summer 2020, when it reopened for curbside pickup during the Covid-19 lockdown. Lucy Gellman File Photo.

That’s what keeps her at Stetson, she added. For years, colleagues and friends have told Brown that she could apply for a position in library administration, or would make a good city librarian. She’s not interested, she said. She feels like she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.

Her mentorship, too, was on display many times over Saturday. Abdussabur, who organized BITE as a pop-up with colleagues from Black Haven, remembered running through the library as a little girl, and knowing that she was supported by everyone around her. Angela Watley, a veteran 911 operator who grew up on Foote Street, has reason to come back to the new Stetson Branch, where her son now works.  

Speaking late in the afternoon, Young Minds and Family Learning Librarian Phillip Modeen remembered coming into Stetson as a still-new librarian, and feeling totally embraced by the Dixwell community. When he began working, “he came into the community with his eyes and ears wide open,” Brown said. He has since led hundreds of story times and “Stay and Play” sessions in which he watched young people grow up before his eyes.

It never mattered that the building was in a midcentury commercial strip meant for retail. It exuded warmth, safety, home, he said. 

“When I see this space, I think of how alive it was,” he said, eyes locking with Brown’s. “When you said ‘Stetson is love—’” he paused. “Stetson is love.”