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HIGH PROFILE: As director of Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Quantia Stephanie Mills Fletcher is making sure visitors can learn unknown Black history

by Dwain Hebda | June 19, 2022 at 9:46 a.m.
Key Fletcher on 06/10/2022 at the Mosaic Templar Museum for a High Profile cover. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)..DO NOT USE UNTIL AFTER PUBLICATION IN HIGH PROFILE

Alberta Miller entered the school auditorium ready to enjoy her daughter Quantia's Christmas presentation of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." But one look at the youngsters at the front, and Alberta strode to the stage in that manner she had. Her daughter knew the look and body language all too well.

"I was a snowman," begins Quantia "Key" Fletcher, her head shaking incredulously even today. "I had my little butcher paper snowman with a snowman hat. My maiden name was an 'M' and M's were put in the middle.

"Right before the whole shebang is about to start, Mom comes up to the front of the stage in the cafeteria. She looks at me, she grabs my hand, and she pulls me from the middle to the front. She was like, 'Dirty Dancing.' 'Nobody puts Baby in the corner.'"

Fletcher was mortified by the public display then, but the message came home loud and clear: To be content in the middle of the pack is to believe yourself less than those standing where all can see. So stand up front and take pride, little girl, because pride in yourself will often be all you have in life.

"If there was something that we wanted to do, Mom always pushed and advocated for it," Fletcher says. "She is the reason why I actually pursued what I wanted to do from a young age. If you said you wanted to do something, she was behind you 110%, probably more so than you wanted her to be."

As she tells the story Fletcher's own daughter, Lyrick, amuses herself with a video game nearby. Fletcher lost her mom last year and the pain of a life cut short by covid still gnaws at her, especially as each day reveals more and deeper understanding of what mothers want for their children.

"When my mom died in January of last year I was just devastated," she says. "I always tell people my mom was my everything. She was my friend. We'd hang out. I feel like my mom gave me everything that I was supposed to get, with no stone unturned. I always wanted to be in the background growing up. She pushed me to the front."

Those qualities are on ready display today, as Fletcher leans into her work as director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (MTCC) in Little Rock. She comes to the job after years in supporting roles with the organization, years that saw unprecedented advancement to the one-of-a-kind institution. During her career, she has helped Mosaic Templars earn national accreditation, launch a Juneteenth celebration that has become the standard for the state and achieved successful capital campaigns, the proceeds of which are now updating and transforming the museum itself.

Through these and other accomplishments, the center's reputation has burnished into the leading repository of Black history and culture in Arkansas. And at the Mosaic center, Fletcher's role has always been to push herself and the organization to its best, rejecting the middle ranks of the merely good for the rarefied all-eyes-on-us spotlight of excellence up front.

"I have always been a storyteller," she says. "I want to know the story. I want to know it because it helps me know who you are and it helps me paint a picture and connect the dots or complete a greater piece of the puzzle. I'm always curious about who people are and why we are the way we are; how did we get here and how does that impact everything else? I've always been like that."

YOU'RE DOING IT

Fletcher grew up in the simmering cultural melting pot of New Orleans. Her mother worked for McDonald's for 20 years and her father, the late J.D. Mills, was a construction worker turned jack-of-all-trades after being disabled due to an industrial accident. The youngest and the only girl, her shy and quiet nature preferred books and studying to being noticed. That's where her mother came in.

"My mom was always a go-getter, the exact opposite of me," Fletcher says. "I remember I was probably third or fourth grade and we would have a pageant and whoever won the pageant would be the queen of the parade. Then the queen would have her court, her krewe. I was like, 'No, Mom, I don't want to do that.' She was like, 'Oh, yeah. You're doing it.'

"A lot of it came from how she was raised there in New Orleans. My grandmother worked all the time. My mom, being the oldest, took care of my two aunts and didn't get a chance to do some of the things that she wanted to do as a kid. I think for that reason she wanted to make sure that I always had the opportunity to be involved, to stand out."

She might not have known it then, but Fletcher wasn't regarded by others as the shrinking violet she thought she was. According to classmate and lifelong friend Monchiere Holmes-Jones, Fletcher was always looked on as someone to be emulated.

"She was always revered, but not in a way that she was bullying or anything," Holmes-Jones says. "You respected Quantia. You knew that she was a solid individual, tried and true as a human, and kind.

"I do remember her being steady. You knew Quantia was smart, you knew she was going to get her work done. There was no wavering in her success, no matter what we had going on in our lives."

One of the most instructive experiences of Fletcher's life was joining the Army right out of high school, although she was incredibly naive in doing so. Seeing it strictly as a way to pay for college, she didn't stop to think about how having never been particularly athletic could be a liability. In boot camp, she started suffering from stress fractures after six weeks and, being given the option to go home, called her mom to discuss it.

"I told her, 'I'm going home; who did I think I was to think that I would be able to do this?'" she says. "And my mom said, 'Well, you need to stay.'"

Fletcher would ultimately serve eight years in the Army, but nothing she would encounter during that time was as hard, or meant as much, as the next three months of rehab followed by redoing boot camp.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life," she says of being denied the early out. "Having to go back through and being recycled taught me that a lot of times, the way things look aren't necessarily how they end up. It taught me how strong I was. I was able to not just complete that, but I was able to go back and do it all over again. I came out of that like, 'You can't tell me nothin'!' But I never would have done it if my mom had not told me, 'You're not coming home.'"

PLANTATION LIFE

Fletcher attended Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La, where the homogeneity of north Louisiana was a shock to one accustomed to racial and ethnic gumbo.

"I had never experienced that separation," she says. "It was different there. It was very much Black and white. I often talk to some of my friends from college and I try to remember the people I went to school with who were not Black, and I can't recall many of them."

As unbalancing as it was, college did give her two elements that would change the rest of her life. One, she met her husband there, an ROTC student who would be deployed right after graduation. And second, she had a remarkable work experience with the National Park Service that changed everything she knew and understood about herself and her culture.

"That particular park was Cane River Creole National Historic Site," she says. "It's two plantations and they are some of the most intact plantations in the South, with many outbuildings and structures. We had a really complete view of what antebellum life was. They were about to open a new installation and they needed someone to help write the media and the press and all of that stuff."

It might have seemed an uncomfortable setting for a young Black woman to be sequestered daily at the site of such oppression, let alone lead tours with the tourists that would show up. But Fletcher says it was just the opposite.

"I loved my job," she says. "I loved walking the grounds in the mornings when it would be so peaceful and quiet. I would think about what life must have been like for the enslaved that lived there, but also the dynamics of the enslaved and the landowners and the dichotomy of the two.

"It was always interesting to me that we did not get a lot of African American visitors. For a lot of Black folks, that's not what they want to see, think about or remember. What I would always impress upon people is the very foundation of the structures were built by these amazing, enslaved Africans. Oftentimes our history is painted as the depths of despair. We have a lot of hardship and struggle, yes, but our history and our story are the foundation of what built this country. That's one of the things that I always liked to think about and talk to people about."

Fletcher came away from the experience with a newfound love for folk life and Southern culture, influenced by the Black experience. Growing up, she had heard only one side of her history, the messaging curated and told by the majority. Now, she wanted to devote her time and talents to telling a more complete version of that rich history, filling in all the things that were being left out in the classroom and the town square.

"That job opened up a whole new world for me, particularly when it comes to African American culture and African culture," she says. "The idea of preserving this story as a national treasure was something that I had never explored or thought about before. Is the story being told? Are there pieces that are being forgotten? And most importantly, what's my role in that?"

MOSAIC TEMPLARS

Fletcher's sense of career manifest destiny required an ocean to reach and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center was that shining sea. Formed in 2001 as the Mosaic Templars of America Center for African American Culture and Business Enterprise, the museum is dedicated to telling the story of the Black experience in Arkansas.

The name commemorates the Mosaic Templars of America, an international Black fraternal organization, founded in 1883. By 1992, its international headquarters in downtown Little Rock came close to being razed, prompting grassroots advocacy to save it, which it did in 1996. The city bought it, turning it over in 2003 to the Department of Arkansas Heritage. As an $8.6 million renovation was nearing completion, the building caught fire and burned to the ground in 2005, prompting construction of the $7 million cultural center that exists today.

The entity's literal rising from the ashes coincided with Fletcher's joining the staff as education director, just months before the grand opening. From there, she moved into the deputy director role eight years ago, working closely with various directors on a number of milestone projects including landing the museum national accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums in 2020. Mosaic Templars is only the third Black history institution in the South to have earned that designation.

Fletcher took over the director's role in May 2021, and while she says the move from one office to the other after all of these years was smooth, nothing looks quite the same from the front row as it does from over previous directors' shoulders.

"Working here has taken the shape of many different things for me," she says. "As education director, it literally meant going to the schools and the communities and sharing the story. As the deputy director, it was making sure that we had funding and making sure that we had resources and working with the staff.

"Now as director, I get a chance to really talk to other people in the community who make the larger decisions about how to make sure people are coming into Little Rock to visit the museum. How do we make sure we have the resources and the budget to be able to impact the state? How do we make sure Black history in Arkansas is not just a citywide thing, but that we're on a national scale?"

"I think the thing that makes Key good at what she does professionally is also what makes her such an awesome person, and that is her passion," says Jennelle Prim, a former Mosaic Templars employee who now owns her own PR firm. "Everything that she does, she does with such passion that it has this influence to it that makes you want to be passionate about it, too. Even if you're not familiar with it, even if you don't have an understanding of it, you just see the love and the energy in everything that she does in telling the story."

Part of Fletcher's mission lies in the ongoing improvements to the museum, including a new children's gallery opened last fall called Same Great Amazing.

"It's a space dedicated to having those conversations about us being different because we are different," Fletcher says. "It teaches families to start really young with conversations about people who are different to really start the relationship. It is our hope that as we continue to develop programming for it, that all families will bring their children here for an inclusive experience, to play alongside kids who are different and they can learn next to kids who are different."

That common theme -- diversity -- is on display everywhere in Fletcher's world, from the literal to the metaphorical down to the most mundane detail. Along one wall of her office, eight pairs of stylish shoes stand at the ready, each projecting a different mood, shape, color and tone. None of them are basic black; each sends a message and joy all their own as the situation or outfit of the wearer demands.

They're all different, yet they all make the new director look good, even if they don't help her blend in.

"This job is really a calling, the need to make sure the story is told, and our ancestors are represented and the community knows our stories are important and our stories matter," Fletcher says, her eyes wandering again to her daughter and the promise for the future she represents. "I think back and look at all the little pieces that were connecting even as I was young, the little patches in the quilt that were connecting to this larger, broader story that would become a part of my work and being a storyteller.

"What's crazy is, I've always wanted to be in the background, but there's always been something in my brain that wants to be the one who yells, 'I've got a good idea!' It's like in my brain I want to be invisible, but I've got sequined pants on. It makes me stand out."


Print Headline: Quantia Stephanie Mills Fletcher

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