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Bernard and Shirley Kinsey

Bernard and Shirley Kinsey have shared their collection with the public through a national touring exhibit and companion book.

When Khalil Kinsey asked his father for help with a history class assignment, the third-grader had no way of knowing his seemingly straightforward questions would lead to a decades-long search for answers. But that’s exactly what happened when Bernard Kinsey realized he was unable to fill in most of the blanks regarding his son’s lineage.

“Going past my granddad,” recalls Bernard, “I was completely ignorant of my family history. [My first response was] ‘My wife and I can do better . . . not only for Khalil, but for ourselves!’”

Margaret Burroughs:"The Faces of My People," 1990s, linocut.

Margaret Burroughs: The Faces of My People, 1990s, linocut.

Soon after, Kinsey heard from a business partner who’d recently unearthed a 19th-century bill of sale for an enslaved man who had been sold in Alabama for $550. The colleague found the document while clearing an older relative’s attic in Florida, and offered to overnight it to Kinsey, who eagerly accepted.

“It was the seventies,” says Kinsey. “The miniseries Roots had just premiered on TV and genealogy was a hot topic in America . . . particularly among African Americans like myself and my wife Shirley.”

Still, nothing could prepare the then-executive with Xerox Corporation for the visceral response he would experience when taking in the contents of that FedEx package for the first time. “I felt like I was holding this young brother in my hands,” remembers Kinsey. “I immediately wanted to know how we got in this predicament in America. I just wanted to know more about slavery.”

In 200, the Kinseys commissioned a painting from then-SCAD student Samuel L. Dunson Jr.  The Cultivators depicts the Kinsey family sowing the seed of knowledge.

In 2000, the Kinseys commissioned a painting from then-SCAD student Samuel L. Dunson Jr. He surprised them with The Cultivators, which depicts the Kinsey family sowing the seeds of knowledge.

Forty years later, Kinsey is still asking himself the same question. But the nearly 400 manuscripts, rare books, artifacts, photographs and works of art documenting the history of Africans in America he has amassed in the interim have gone a long way toward filling in lots of blanks. And now visitors to the Atlanta History Center can see a portion of that cache in a national touring exhibit, The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Where Art and History Intersect.

Among the 120 pieces on view through July 13 are myth-shattering artifacts that establish the presence of Africans in the New World five years before Jamestown — including a baptismal certificate that was recorded in 1595 for a baby girl named Estebana (the first-known black child to be born in North America), and the 1598 marriage certificate of Simon and Marin, who were African American citizens of St. Augustine, Florida.

The collection is also a study in contrasts. On one hand, rusted shackles, insurance policies for human cargo and slave manifests drive home the depravity of the slave trade. On the other, Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (the first book to be published by an African American), and a first edition of Solomon Northrop’s 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave attest to a level of aspirational thinking that defies reason given the authors’ time and place.

A portrait of poet Phillis Wheatey in a copy of her book, Poems on Various Subjects-Religious and Moral.

A portrait of poet Phillis Wheatley in a copy of her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Every item on display sheds light on a narrative Kinsey characterizes as “both painful and wonderful.” Though his mission to dispel myths and promote dialogue about the role of African Americans in the making of America is unmistakable, he is quick to point out, “I think this is an American history story, not an African American story.”

One might think that what Kinsey has learned while building the collection would have retired any questions first inspired by a child’s homework assignment. But he remains haunted by one lingering mystery. “I have no idea where my family name comes from,” he confides.

But if past is prologue, chances are Kinsey’s search for that answer will be everyone else’s gain.

 Meet the Past, a family-friendly interactive theater performance based on African American artists and writers featured in the collection, will take place in the exhibit’s galleries every weekend until the show closes on July 13.

For information about the exhibit’s eponymous companion book, click here.

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