CT Humanities Awards Grant to the James Family Documentary Project Fund at the Community Foundation of Middlesex County

The James Family and the Community Foundation of Middlesex County (CFMC) are pleased to announce that Connecticut Humanities (CTH) has awarded the James Family Documentary Project Fund a grant of $17,500 for the continuing work on Ann Petry and the James Family Letters. Journalist, community volunteer and former CFMC board member Elisabeth (Liz) Petry and her cousins Ashley James and Kathryn Golden have been hard at work with volunteers and experts, working on the planning phase of the documentary film and continuing the research into the incredible James family history.

Liz received an amazing gift from her mother, acclaimed author Ann Petry —  a tin box containing over 400 letters and photographs handed down through five generations of family.

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

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

Ann Petry and the James Family Letters is a broadcast documentary film currently in pre-production, exploring the James clan of Connecticut – an African American family that rose from slavery, triumphed over racism, and produced a number of “firsts,” including shaping the life of acclaimed author Ann Petry. The film will be designed for television with distribution through libraries, museums, community organizations, and digital Internet streams.

The CT Humanities grant will support the research, interviews, and video work for the development of the documentary film. This includes working with local and national experts on early American and African American history, local historical societies and historical archives, and individuals who knew the James Family. The support of CT Humanities will help expand the understanding of African American history in Connecticut and beyond. To the list of esteemed scholars, they have added Manisha Sinha, Ph.D, the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Sinha specializes in Early American, Southern, and African American History, Transnational Histories of Slavery, Abolition, and Feminism, United States Political History, the History and Legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press 2016), Dr. Sinha will help our understanding of where the James family fits into the long and tortured history of African Americans struggling with the aftermath of slavery.

The team will also continue reviewing the trove of newsreels and VHS tapes owned by the Old Saybrook Historical Society. The Beebe Collection covers the period when Anna Louise James was operating the pharmacy, and Ann Petry was living and writing in Old Saybrook. The producers intend to review these materials and digitize a selection to be used in the film.

Project Director Elisabeth Petry said, “We are all thrilled that Connecticut Humanities has once again provided us with support for Ann Petry and the James Family Letters. The story of this unique family will help audiences in Middlesex County and across the country understand the complexities of the life among the black middle class in an era rarely seen in print or on film. Everyone involved with producing the film is grateful to the Community Foundation for its amazing support from the very beginning. We also look forward to working with the Old Saybrook Historical Society again. The work on this phase of the project will position us to develop a full production of this hour-long documentary.”

Anna Louise James, upon her graduation from pharmacy school, 1908

To even 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. Liz and her cousins established the James Family Documentary Project Fund at the Community Foundation in 2015 to support the work of the project.

The Community Foundation of Middlesex County is honored to work with Liz and her cousins Ashley James and Kathryn Golden to support this project.

Cynthia Clegg, CFMC President & CEO, explained, “Liz is a special part of the CFMC family and when she came to us with this wonderful story and the opportunity to share it and to work with her and her family to share it, we were thrilled. The James family is an integral part of our community’s history, for the important contributions of an African American family of entrepreneurs and the literary contributions of one of our great female, African American literary geniuses, Ann Petry. We are so grateful to Connecticut Humanities for their support of this project. Together we are helping a great story take shape on film and look forward to the incredible work ahead.”

To learn more about the Ann Petry and the James Family Letters documentary project, visit the project’s website The James Family Letters and the James Family Project Fund on the Community Foundation’s website LINK.


The Community Foundation idea is simple one: anyone can be a philanthropist; anyone may use it to give something back to the community. The Community Foundation of Middlesex County represents local people, giving locally to make an impact on the lives of others – not just for today, but forever.

            The Community Foundation of Middlesex County is unique. It began as a grass roots effort with multiple donations from countless caring donors. That tradition continues today as friends, neighbors, businesses, and organizations continue to work together, pooling their gifts, and making a positive impact in our community through the Community Foundation.

Since 1997, generous individuals, companies, institutions, organizations, and businesses have established funds at the Community Foundation in order to invest in the future of our region. We leverage every gift, no matter the size, to improve the arts; cultural and heritage programs; educational activities; environmental conditions; health and human services, and so much more.

The Community Foundation of Middlesex County does “Help Good People Do Great Things.” We invite you to learn more by calling us at 860-347-0025 or exploring our website.


Connecticut Humanities, a non-profit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, provides opportunities to explore the history, literature and the vibrant culture that make our state, cities and towns attractive places to live and work. Learn more by visiting cthumanities.org.

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