Shackles once worn by enslaved Africans. An 1832 bill of sale for a man named William Johnson. A letter from Malcolm X to Alex Haley. A first edition of poems by Phillis Wheatley from 1773. An early copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
These are among the more than 100 treasures owned by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey of Los Angeles, and make up one of the largest and most diverse private collections of African American artifacts, documents and artwork in the world.
The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard & Shirley Kinsey–Where Art and History Intersect, began touring nationally in 2007 and has been displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the famed DuSable Museum of History in Chicago and the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, among others.
Now, to honor the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to set in motion the freeing of those enslaved in the United States), Wells Fargo is the presenting sponsor of the Kinsey Collection’s exhibitions in San Francisco (Museum of the African Diaspora, February 8–May 19, 2013), Charlotte, N.C., (Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, June 27–October 12, 2013) and Baltimore (Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, November 1, 2013–January 20, 2014).
In addition to this tour, a smaller exhibit will open at Epcot at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., March 8, 2013. The 40 pieces of art, artifacts, books, sculptures and documents collected from 90 countries — the oldest piece dates back to 1600 — will be on display at the American Heritage Gallery in the American Adventure Pavilion for three years. This special exhibit shares the story of the Kinsey family as well, intertwining their personal history with the rich heritage reflected in the items in the collection.
A connection to history, education
The collaboration with the Kinseys, which celebrates a watershed moment in American history, is directly in line with the vision and values of Wells Fargo, in particular, the organization’s promotion of education and its commitment to diversity.
“What was almost instantly appealing about working with the Kinseys is that so much of what’s in the collection is about African-American achievement,” says Tim Hanlon, President of the Wells Fargo Foundation. “We have an opportunity via the collection to help folks to really understand and appreciate the milestone that the Emancipation Proclamation really was.”
From their perspective, the Kinseys say the collection forms a narrative of African-American men, women and children who, despite their circumstances, achieved greatness.
“We have, very methodically, begun to tell the story of African-American history from an African-American viewpoint,” says Bernard Kinsey, a business consultant and former Xerox executive. “The reality is that the African-American experience is so rich.”
Building the collection, bringing it forward
The Kinseys, both Florida natives, met at Florida A&M University and have been married for 46 years. What started, initially, as a way to remember their travels, became a hunt for a personal and cultural education for their son Khalil, who is now the General Manager of Operations and Exhibitions for the Kinsey Collection.
Because most African-Americans can only trace their ancestry back a few generations, the Kinseys embarked on a journey to find treasures to help fill in the gaps and build a collective African-American history. It’s this “connective tissue,” according to Bernard Kinsey, that forms the meaning of the Kinsey Collection.
The collection represents an opportunity to “educate, motivate and inspire” everyone who comes to the exhibit, says Shirley Kinsey, who also is a retired Xerox executive. That Wells Fargo approached them to establish a touring exhibition was a “godsend.”
“We’ve always said we wanted a collaborator on this mission,” she says. “But we wanted to make sure we had the right one — someone who would be good citizens of this. We’re excited that more people will get to see it.”
Hanlon says Wells Fargo is honored to present the collection and hopes that audiences will gain a greater appreciation and understanding of this essential part of American history.
“I hope that an African-American audience comes out excited with the celebration of African-American achievement,” says Hanlon, a 32-year veteran of Wells Fargo. “For those who are not as knowledgeable about the contributions of African-Americans to United States culture and way of life, I hope that there are touch points for education, for them to learn something about the life and contributions of African-Americans.”
Kimberly Davis is a freelance writer from Athens, Ga. Her work has appeared in Ebony, Diverse Issues in Higher Education and People. She is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.
Photography courtesy of The Kinsey Collection, John Diefenbach : Portrait of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Artis Lane; Samuel L. Dunson, Jr. | The Cultivators, 2000 | Field Hands, 1988 • Jonathan Green; Art © Estate of Hughie Lee-Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY | Untitled, 1951 • Hughie Lee-Smith
Want to brush up on your history by visiting more of the most significant destinations from America's past? See "Traveling America's Treasures: 6 Must-See Destinations."