Sweet Surprises: How an Ice Cream Cone Tin Led to a Powerful Partnership

Journalist, community volunteer and former CFMC board member Elisabeth Petry received an amazing gift from her mother, acclaimed author Ann Petry:  a cookie tin containing over 400 letters and photographs handed down through five generations of family.

When Liz shared what she found with her cousins Ashley James and Kathryn Golden, co-founders of Searchlight Films, a new idea started to

The James Children: (l to r front) Harry, Harriet (l to r back) Helen, Fritz, Willis, Bertha
                                      The James Children:
                               (l to r front) Harry, Harriet
                      (l to r back) Helen, Fritz, Willis, Bertha

take shape.  The trio saw more than family memorabilia in that tin; they also saw local history and legacy, and knew this story needed to be shared. They agreed on a documentary film project named For Dear Mother’s Sake: The James Family Letters that Shaped Ann Petry.

The story began with family patriarch Willis Samuel James as he escaped from a plantation during the Civil War and settled in Hartford about 1866, and continued through recent history in Old Saybrook where Liz’s family had a pharmacy and where her mother wrote and raised her family.  “The title of the film comes from a letter that Willis H. James, son of the patriarch, wrote from a Georgia lock-up to his sister in Saybrook. He implored Bertha ‘for dear mother’s sake’ to send $35 (now about $900) so he could bribe the sheriff and avoid being lynched,” said Liz. “When I read this line, I knew we had a treasure that needed to be shared beyond my family.”

The first step in any project is planning and securing the assistance of local historians and experts. To start the planning process, the team needed a partner to handle potential grant funding, a fiscal sponsor with the know-how to handle the intricacies of funding and donations. That’s where the Community Foundation came in.

“I knew I could turn to the Community Foundation for guidance and support,” said Liz. “They have the skills, the people, and the desire to help my family accomplish our goal. ‘Helping good people do great things’ is more than their tagline. It’s who they are.”

Together, the James Family and the Community Foundation received a grant of $23,219 from Connecticut Humanities to cover expenses associated with the planning phase of the project. “Connecticut Humanities helps its grantees tell stories – and what a powerful story the James family has to tell! We are proud to support this project about a Connecticut author and the history and legacy that shaped her work

CFMC Board Chairman Wally Jones, CFMC President & CEO Cynthia Clegg, Liz Petry, Rep. Matt Lesser, CT Humanities Director of Grants and Programs Lauren Miller, and Old Saybrook Historical Society President Marie McFarlin
CFMC Board Chairman Wally Jones, CFMC President & CEO Cynthia Clegg, Liz Petry, Rep. Matt Lesser, CT Humanities Director of Grants and Programs Lauren Miller, and Old Saybrook Historical Society President Marie McFarlin

and family,” explained Lauren Miller, Director of Grants and Programs at Connecticut Humanities.

On August 18, state and local representatives joined members of the Old Saybrook Historical Society and Connecticut Humanities at the Community Foundation to celebrate the award and to give a formal kick-off to the project. State Representative Matthew Lesser presented an official citation from the state General Assembly. He read, “This documentary will enrich Connecticut’s historical narrative and bring more attention to the important contributions that African-Americans have made to our state’s history.”

 “We at the Community Foundation of Middlesex County are proud to serve as the fiscal sponsor for this exceptional project,” said Cynthia H. Clegg, President and CEO. “The James family has enriched our local heritage through their many extraordinary contributions, and we are excited to help ensure that their story is shared with our neighbors today and for generations to come. Thanks to the support of our generous donors, the Foundation is able to take on projects such as this. We look forward to helping bring even more great things to our community.”

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