About 40 years ago, a family in Los Angeles decided to dedicate their life’s work to filling the voids in African-American history and sharing it through an exhibit that features more than 100 different objects, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, rare books, letters and documents. .
The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University is the first location in Alabama to display “The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection,” on display through Dec. 30.
The collection celebrates the achievements of African Americans dating back to 1595.
how it started
The exhibit represents over 50 years of collecting by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey and their son Khalil Kinsey, Managing Director and Chief Curator of the collection.
Kinsey said many factors led to its creation.
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Her parents, Bernard and Shirley, grew up in Florida and met at Florida A&M University after Shirley was arrested along with a group of college students for protesting and trying to get into the local movie theater.
They married in 1967, moved to Los Angeles after graduation, and set out to travel the world. During this time, they began collecting art created by African Americans and artifacts from their travels.
Khalil Kinsey, born in 1977, remembers being tasked with creating a family tree when he was in third grade. After speaking with his parents and relatives, he was only able to go back about four generations.
“I came back to school and I was really faced with a lot of confusion,” he said. “A lot of my classmates could go back ages, and I just had a lot of questions as a young boy and confusion and a little anger.”
His parents explained to him how slavery breaks up families and causes family history to be lost.
A few years later, Kinsey’s father received a document from a colleague in Alabama. It was a bill of sale for a slave named William Johnson.
“My dad said, and he would tell you right now, that he could feel and still feels the weight of this document in his hands,” Kinsey said.
His father wanted to know more about Johnson, and Khalil Kinsey said it sparked his own interest in wanting to know more about African American history. He started the quest to connect the dots.
In 2005, the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about the Kinseys and their growing collection, which resulted in a traveling exhibit.
The Kinseys took the exhibit across the country for 16 years, including to Disney World and the Smithsonian Institute.
Kinsey said he was thrilled to show the collection for the first time in Alabama, making it the family’s 39th exhibit.
“This is information that is new,” he said. “It’s exciting because you find out something, and it colors the picture a lot more.”
Cindi Malinick, executive director of the Jules Collins Smith Museum, said the exhibit is an extraordinary collection.
“It reflects part of the African American history of this country through historic artifacts, objects and art,” Malinick said. “It’s a story that’s not necessarily widely known for all sorts of reasons in this country.”
Through art and different historical objects, Malinick said the collection opens the door to conversation and allows people to see history in a different way.
“You can enjoy an exhibit and at the same time be very moved or intrigued by it, or you can be confused by an exhibit,” she said. “But when you go back and think about it, you’re grateful that you had the opportunity to be provoked in a way to think about things in a new way.”
The exhibit includes bills of sale, advertisements and documents documenting the slave trade; hand-colored Civil War-era tintypes; Harlem Renaissance art and literature; and artifacts from the civil rights movement.
“It’s about edifying people with information that hasn’t been in plain sight but is an important part of the picture,” Kinsey said. “Through our exhibit and just American history, you will see that there have been absolutely tremendous contributions from the hands, hearts, and minds of black Americans.”
Kinsey said he came from a family of activists and educators. His grandfather, Ulysses B. Kinsey, was a teacher and then principal for 40 years and has an elementary school named after him in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Ulysses B. Kinsey is featured in the gallery not only because he is part of the family, but also because he played an important role in the civil rights movement, Kinsey said.
His grandfather had studied to be a lawyer, but Kinsey said he had trouble getting into the legal system and decided to become an elementary school teacher in 1941.
Meanwhile, his grandfather was paid 50% of what his white counterparts earned, and black children were only allowed to go to school six months a year because of sharecropping.
Kinsey said her grandfather and a group of black educators filed two class action lawsuits and were represented by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black justice on the United States Supreme Court.
The two cases conducted by Kinsey’s grandfather were cited as building blocks in Brown v. Board of Education 1954, which is also in collection.
The two oldest items in the collection are documents that include a baptism record of an African-American girl in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1595 and a marriage record of an African-American couple in St. Augustine from 1598.
The Kinseys were among the first to see these documents, which were discovered in Cuba centuries later.
“What this does is update the history books in terms of the presence of people of African descent in the Americas before slavery,” Kinsey said. “It gives black history a focus outside of slavery.”
Kinsey said the family plans to continue traveling with the exhibit. It is set to appear at the Holocaust Museum in Houston, with plans to also show in Scotland and other parts of Europe.
In addition to continuing to collect, the Kinseys also plan to establish a permanent museum in the future.
The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University, 901 S. College Street, is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with extended hours on Thursday until 8 p.m. Free entry.