Beginning Saturday, Charlotte will host the largest-ever exhibition of objects from the Kinsey Collection, which represents 400 years of the African-American experience in the United States. Prominent in the exhibit will be the document that started it all 26 years ago.
“A business partner ran across a bill of sale in an aunt’s attic in Alabama for a slave,” says Bernard Kinsey. William Johnson was sold for $550.
“He sent it to me. I opened it and felt chills, like I was holding this brother in my hand. I wanted to know more about how he got in this predicament and how black folks got in this predicament in this country.”
Kinsey and his wife, Shirley, were already collectors of various objects, including minerals from the West. But the bill of sale intrigued them and they began focusing on artifacts about African-American history.
Other items in the exhibition include slave shackles, letters by Zora Neale Hurston and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., correspondence between Malcolm X and his biographer Alex Haley, 17th-century slave documents and warrants for runaways, and works by African-American artists including Romare Bearden, Henry O. Tanner and Artis Lane. Also on display will be an early copy of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
In all, about 125 items will be shown in the galleries of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture on South Tryon Street. It will be about 40 percent larger than the collection shown at the Smithsonian Institution in 2010.
More than 3 million people have viewed the Kinsey Collection since it went on tour in 2007. Forty other pieces of the collection are on loan in the gallery of Disney’s Epcot American Adventure in Orlando.
It is the largest exhibition at the Gantt since Tavis Smiley’s “America I AM: The African American Imprint” that opened a year ago.
Gantt president David Taylor says the Charlotte museum is the perfect venue for the Kinsey Collection. “Our primary objective is to serve as a catalyst for African-American arts and education, and we believe this collection fully embodies the spirit of African-American achievement and contribution.”
Another slave letter
Another letter to be displayed, Kinsey says, also moved him.
Dated 1854, it was a letter from a plantation owner’s wife to a slave dealer saying she needed to sell her 17-year-old chambermaid, Frances Crawford. In the letter, the woman frets about parting with her because she’d been the best maid she’d ever had, but she needed the money to buy horses. She mentioned she owned Crawford’s 10 brothers and sisters.
“What’s poignant about the letter is that Frances doesn’t know she’s being sold because she can’t read or write,” Kinsey says. “She’ll be walking away from her mother and father and family. It speaks more to the reality of slavery than any other I’ve ever seen because it speaks to the greed of slavery.”
Discovering a larger world
Kinsey grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., and met his wife when they attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.
In 1965, he and a friend were selected for a summer job with the Interior Department, which wanted to integrate the national park system. They were sent to the Grand Canyon to be rangers.
“That experience in the Grand Canyon just changed my life. As a young Florida boy, I’d never seen a mountain or been on a plane, much less being face-to-face with white people.”
Their supervisor, Kinsey says, wasn’t a fan of integration. For the first 10 weeks of their 12-week term, they were on the midnight shift. That turned out to be a good thing.
“It gave us a great opportunity to explore the park during the daytime,” says Kinsey, now 69. “We hiked and learned the geology of the West, all the stuff that made the Grand Canyon what it was. That informed me that this was a much bigger world. I then thought about the world in much bigger terms.”
Starting to collect
Two years later, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles, and started their first collection: rocks and geological materials. He had a successful business career as an executive with Xerox, made shrewd real estate investments and was able to retire at 47. Over the years, the Kinseys helped raise $22 million for charities.
They have spent years traveling, and national parks are still their passion: They’ve been to 43.
Married nearly 47 years, the Kinseys in April finished visiting their 94th country: Saint Martin in the Caribbean. He expects they’ll easily reach 100 nations.
Bringing people together
At the Gantt, the collection is being presented by Wells Fargo, which Kinsey says is a fitting host.
In the 1880s, Wells Fargo’s president instructed all employees that they had a responsibility to treat black and white customers equally, Kinsey says. “Thinking it is one thing, but putting it on paper is a whole different deal,” he says. “There was even a black stagecoach driver in the 1880s.”
Kinsey sees the collection as an exception to the belief that whites don’t usually come to black exhibitions and vice versa. “We bring people together that don’t usually get together,” he says. “You will be changed, and you will be different.”
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