Kinsey Collection Opens at Smithsonian

Pacific Palisades residents Bernard and Shirley Kinsey with the catalog of their collection.
Pacific Palisades residents Bernard and Shirley Kinsey with the catalog of their collection.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

The first thing that caught Bernard Kinsey’s attention was a letter that a friend had found in his aunt’s attic. A slave document, as Kinsey now refers to it, the letter is about an enslaved African American man. ‘Holding it in my hand led me to want to find out more about the man,’ Kinsey says.   That was 15 years ago. Kinsey and his wife, Shirley, already had an art collection of paintings, sculpture, textiles and masks they found on their far and wide travels. But the letter set the Kinseys on a different kind of journey.   ’For the past 20 years our focus has been on discovering the stories of African Americans,’ Bernard says. The more than 100 historical records, rare books, letters, artifacts and images the Kinseys have acquired since then are tangible evidence of the people these items represent. ‘We have the stories and the collection to document them,’ Bernard says.   This week in Washington, D.C., ‘The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey’ will be unveiled at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The collection has been away from the couple’s home in Pacific Palisades since 2006. The Smithsonian is the last stop on an extensive tour.   ’It’s pretty amazing,’ Bernard says. ‘What was in our wine cellar is now in the main gallery of the most visited museum in the world.’ He estimates that 2.5 million people will see the collection before it closes on May 1, 2011.   The Kinsey collection of African American art and artifacts ranges across some 500 years and includes works by many contemporary black artists. But the heart of it explores the African American experience in the 17th and 18th centuries.   It is not always an easy history to look at, but the Kinseys have uncovered bright rays of hope and inspiration. ‘Find out about your ancestors and it empowers you,’ Shirley says.   One of their major holdings is a book of poems by Phyllis Wheatley dated 1773, a first edition of the first book published by a former U.S. slave. Her references to God, religion and Greek mythology show Wheatley to be a devout and educated woman.   Several letters in the collection are particularly moving. In one, dated 1854, a white master regrets having to sell his 17-year-old chambermaid, Frances Crawford, and separate her from the rest of her family so that he can buy horses and build a stable.   The Kinseys tell such stories in the presentations they make at museums where their collection is exhibited. It is called, ‘What You Didn’t Learn in High School History,’ and it shows the range of human experiences that their holdings represent.   ’We don’t beat anybody up,’ Bernard says of the presentation, ‘but we don’t sugar-coat anything either. People take to it. At the core, we all want to know where we came from.’   Shackles from the mid-1800s tell one piece of the story. A book titled ‘A Gentleman of Color’ (2002) by Julie Winch tells a far less familiar piece of it. She writes about business entrepreneur James Forten, an African American born free in 1765 who owned a sail-making factory in Philadelphia. His workforce was a mix of black and white men with blacks supervising whites in some cases.   ’We’ve uncovered many stories of accomplishment,’ Kinsey says. ‘They show how our people overcame, not how they struggled.’   Building their extraordinary collection has had a permanent effect on the Kinseys. ‘It has transformed me,’ says Bernard, who is constantly reading and researching African American history. ‘We know so much more about our people than we did. We know who more of them are, how they lived, who they had for friends. There is no going back.’   Shirley Kinsey encourages school children to become the family historian. She started with their son, Khalil, a hip-hop artist in his young thirties.   ’Khalil had a ‘family history’ project to do when he was in third grade,’ she recalls. ‘We began delving into our family history and then expanded into our collective history.’   From then on, she made sure that Khalil’s history reports were about African Americans. ‘He asked why and I told him. ‘You need to know, and you need to tell other people so they’ll know,’ ‘ Shirley says.   While most of their collection is on tour, the Kinseys keep a few things close at hand. In the small room that used to be their wine cellar, Bernard takes a daguerreotype from its paper sleeve and looks at the image of a black Confederate soldier dressed in uniform. During the Civil War, this African American fought on the side that defended slavery.   ’A lot of people think there were no black Confederate soldiers,’ Bernard says, ‘but there were about 5,000.’   An oversize portfolio on display in the room flows with graceful handwriting. It is an inventory for an estate sale in 1604, beautiful to look at, bitter to read. Hundreds of nameless people are listed among the possessions, each identified by some distinctive physical marking. ‘Left arm rather crooked,’ one entry notes.   The Kinseys don’t dwell on their own personal stories of setback and victory, but things come up in conversation. They met in 1963 when they were both students at Florida A&M, the historically black university in Tallahassee. Shirley had just been released from jail, where she spent three days. She and other students had been arrested at a protest demonstration where they demanded that African Americans be allowed to sit on the first floor in movie theaters and eat at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s.   Bernard was at the jail with a campus group assisting people who had been arrested.   They met and four years later they married and moved to Los Angeles. A few years after that Bernard joined the Xerox Corporation. He worked there for 20 years and became a vice president before he left the company to launch his own consulting business. Shirley taught school in Compton and worked in training and development for Xerox.   They have always been active in the community. After the Los Angeles riots of 1992 Bernard was co-chair of ‘ReBuild L.A.’ and helped generate close to $400 million in investments for parts of the city in the greatest need of revitalization. The couple has been widely recognized for their philanthropic contributions.   The Kinseys were born before the desegregation movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when it was still legal to deny blacks access to public facilities. ‘Fifty years after African Americans were still essentially enslaved, we’re here. The more we make our people’s story known, the better off everybody will be.’