Seventeen-year-old Tonisha Owens stared wide-eyed at the faded script on an 1854 letter. It was once carried years ago by another 17-year-old — a slave named Frances. The letter was written by a plantation owner’s wife to a slave dealer, saying that she needed to sell her chambermaid to pay for horses. But Frances didn’t know how to read or write, and didn’t know what she carried.
“She does not know she is to be sold. I couldn’t tell her,” the letter reads. “I own all her family and the leave taking would be so distressing that I could not.”
That letter is among hundreds of documents, artifacts and artworks that make up the Kinsey Collection, which covers 400 years of African-American triumphs and tragedies. Bernard Kinsey and his wife, Shirley, began acquiring pieces more than 35 years ago and have said that Frances’ letter speaks to the reality and greed of slavery.
Owens, a junior at Reginald F. Lewis High School, says it sent her a powerful message about the things African-Americans can do, sometimes under extreme duress.
“We accomplish so many things,” Owens marveled. “They went through slavery and still accomplished. So we can’t say, ‘I’m tired, I don’t feel like doing this.’ That’s not an excuse.”
Owens was among a group of students touring an exhibition of the collection at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum. The collection has made its way around the country, including a stint at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. A small portion of it is currently on display at the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Skipp Sanders, executive director at the Lewis Museum, says he has a particular interest in students seeing the exhibition. He also thinks it is important for people, especially African-Americans, to understand that the legacy of what black people have done is part of the fabric of American history.
“We’ve all, I think, even currently, gotten a sort of distorted picture of what American history is and how this contribution has to be woven in and through it,” Sanders says.
He says he gets emotional viewing the original documents on display here, including the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case. There’s also a final page, complete with the different-colored signatures of the Supreme Court justices, from the decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. But one of his favorite pieces is a letter written in 1942 by Zora Neale Hurston in which she decisively rejects an unwanted suitor.
“If you will be decent enough to die,” Hurston writes, “I will buy me a red dress, send myself some flowers of congratulation and come to your funeral.”
Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, along with their son Khalil, have chosen to share their collection because they say it spotlights not black pain, but the strength and resilience of African-Americans. Bernard Kinsey says he wants to end what he calls the “myth of absence,” where the accomplishments of African-Americans aren’t acknowledged.
“What we’re saying,” he told a group of journalists and admirers in Orlando, “is we want to put African-Americans in the dialogue, put us in the stories, ’cause if you get used to not seeing us, you start thinking that’s OK, when it really isn’t OK.”
The Kinsey family is also very focused on what the collection means to young people who aren’t learning about this history in school. Alexander Bullock, 17, says the exhibition changed his mind about a lot of things.
“It shows more of the people you don’t hear about, or you don’t really read about, or that the teachers don’t talk about,” Bullock says. “Everybody talks about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. …. But you don’t really hear about the people they don’t talk about, who didn’t really get their names out there.”
Bullock’s classmate Dominic Gilliam, 16, was both stunned and inspired by the things he learned.
“When you just look at all these things, we have just as much power as anybody else,” Gilliam said.
The Kinsey Collection is on display at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore through March 2014.