A renowned traveling exhibit of art and artifacts showing the role of African Americans throughout history is now on display at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in downtown Little Rock.
Bernard and Shirley Kinsey have been amassing primary source documents, artifacts and fine art for more than 30 years. Although they live in Los Angeles, since 2007 their collection has toured the nation. It’s been visited by more than 5 million people. This is the first time it has been shown in Arkansas.
“What this exhibit represents is exposure, enlightenment. Hopefully it’s an agent for change and for unity,” says Khalil Kinsey, the son of the couple who’ve been collecting for more than 30 years. As the exhibit’s curator, he runs through some of the documents and artifacts on display in chronological order, starting with Spanish colonial times.
The younger Kinsey says the exhibit also aims to tell “many of the untold stories of American history.”
The Kinseys have also used the collection to develop K-12 African American history curriculums in the states of California and Florida through their nonprofit, the Bernard and Shirley Kinsey Foundation for Arts and Education.
“Oftentimes black history is relegated to one month out of the year and it’s very limited in terms of the scope of the individuals highlighted and the stories told,” Khalil Kinsey says, noting that for many years he didn’t always appreciate the significance and educational purpose of his parents’ collection.
“I was kind of lost or I thought that my identity was something different,” he says. “The negative is overwhelming, in terms of the messaging that we get and the reflection that we see of ourselves in the media and the overall American society. What we do is kind of expose why that’s even in play today.”
One section of the exhibit begins with facsimiles of Spanish baptismal and marriage documents from 1595 and 1598 respectively. The records show free Africans living in Florida nearly a decade before the founding of the Jamestown settlement.
As the exhibit progresses towards the era of American enslavement of African people, an 1801 New York Census document shows a population tabulation of three-fifths of slaves, in accordance with the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.
Also on display is an early manuscript written at the age of 13 by the 18th century African American poet Phillis Wheatley, who spent much of her life in slavery.
There’s a copy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which held that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not sue in federal court or achieve the full rights of citizens.
In a section on the American Civil War, an 1863 government-issued recruiting poster from Camp William Penn displays a regiment of black men in the Union Army. Kinsey says it was the first known printed use of the colloquialism “Brothers,” used in reference to black men.
Items in the exhibit continue on through emancipation, to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement.
There’s a program from the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a newspaper published by the Black Panthers and a poster used by Memphis Sanitation Workers in demonstrations shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968.
One item belonged to the famed poet, memoirist and activist Maya Angelou, who spent much of her youth in Stamps, Arkansas. It’s an Adler Meteor 12 model typewriter, on which Angelou wrote many of her celebrated works.
Khalil Kinsey hopes the collection can illuminate the roots of current societal ills faced by African Americans, while also celebrating the many cultural and political triumphs.
“These are some of the things that went into the DNA of America and the way we operate and see things,” he says.
In all, Kinsey says more than 100 items are on display. He says it represents “a good cross section” of the larger collection, much of which is at Walt Disney World in Florida.
The Kinsey Collection will be on display at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, located at 9th and Broadway streets, until July 8th. Admission is free.