Forward Times

The Kinsey Collection Spotlights Black Art & Achievement at Houston’s Holocaust Museum

ABOVE: The Kinseys, as displayed in the Holocaust Museum Houston Collection. (Photos taken by the author.)

The Holocaust Museum Houston is now presenting The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection, a widely acclaimed exhibition celebrating the achievements of Black Americans from 1595 to the present. Located in the Museum’s Josef and Edith Mincberg Gallery, the collection includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, books, letters and historical documents. On display from Jan. 12 to June 23, the exhibition features over 100 treasures collected by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey throughout their 56-year marriage.

The Kinseys are “cultivators” (hence Samuel Dunson’s piece depicting them), using art and artifacts to tell a complex story about Black Americans. (Photo credit: The Cultivators, Samuel L. Dunson, Jr., Courtesy of The Kinsey AfricanAmerican Art & History Collection)

Step inside the exhibit, and you’re first greeted by hyper-realistic portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Kinsey, along with their son Khalil (who serves as General Manager and chief curator for the exhibition, alongside Larry Earl). They’re like portraits within a portrait — three-dimensional kaleidoscopes. That’s fitting for a collection that presents Black American art and life in a three-dimensional way. Bernard Kinsey’s focus on African American history, Shirley Kinsey’s concentration on living artists, and Khalil Kinsey’s passion for creative expression all merge, culminating in a visual experience in multiple parts, with multiple intersections.

The collection doesn’t shy away from harsh realities. It displays sobering images addressing slavery, accompanied by a solemn notecard: “From 1450, until the late 19th century, over 12 million Africans were taken from the African continent,” it reads, “and forcibly enslaved via the transatlantic slave trade between Africa, the New World, and Europe. European colonizers bought, traded for, and sometimes stole Africans to work as enslaved laborers […] planting and harvesting cotton, sugar, rum, and molasses in the Americas.”

During a media tour, Mr. Kinsey indicated an animated infographic showing the international ebb and flow of the Transatlantic slave trade. “Only 452,000 Africans actually landed in what we now know as the United States,” he says, emphasizing “tremendous numbers” in Mexico, Venezuela, and the Caribbean. “Five million Africans went to Brazil. Argentina in 1848 was 52% black,” he says. “Peru was considered a black nation in the 16th century. Mexico, right here, was considered a Black nation in the 18th century.”

In fact, Mexico was briefly led by a man of African descent. “Vicente Guerrero was the second president of Mexico,” Kinsey says. “We have his inaugural address from 1829. So, this brother gets up in Mexico City and delivers his address as the 2nd president of Mexico, and the first thing he does was abolish slavery,” he says. “You gotta love this.”

Unfortunately, other nations continued slavery for much longer, partly because it was so profitable. “A person was being sold for $1,000 back in the 17th century,” Kinsey said as he pointed out heavy Caribbean trafficking: “You notice Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti? Because of sugar. When sugar was cultivated, Haiti produced more sugar than any other country in the world in the 18th century. In the 19th century, Cuba produced more sugar than any other country in the world. So these were enormously profitable businesses on the backs of our people that came here in these slave ships.” On the doors nearby is a replica of a slave ship, depicting slaves shackled together, packed like sardines in a tin can of death, dirt and darkness.

Cross over to the other side of an orange wall, and suddenly, instead of slave ships and shackles, there’s lilacs and soft autumnal landscapes. The shift is jarring. But, Mr. Kinsey says, it’s deliberate. During the tour, he notes a book by someone who was born on a slave ship and went on to become a lauded opera singer and poet. (A closer look at the paintings reveals that they were made by free Black people.)

Work by Edward Mitchell Bannister (Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection)

“Early Genius”

A title card explains: “A primary reason the Kinseys collect art and artifacts is to document extraordinary African American achievement. The work of Africans and African Americans, particularly in times of great struggle, motivates the Kinseys and creates the foundational substance of their journey as cultivators,” it reads. “Equally inspirational to the Kinseys are the significant contributions of [Black] innovators working against the odds while the majority of Africans and African Americans were still enslaved.”

Bernard Kinsey: “Everything about the Kinsey Collection is uplift, about how we overcame these horrors. So we don’t dwell on slavery as ‘Ain’t it awful?’ We dwell on it in terms of what we did about it. And we think that the way out for the African American community is not ‘Ain’t it awful?’ but ‘How do we get over it, around it and through it?’”

“A lot of this is what we call ‘Early Genius,’ like how these people figured out how to get past the system and still have a good life. We say that Black people wake up every day — including me and you — with two words that should be firmly in our forehead: resist and expect. Resist this racism, this voter suppression, this racial profiling, and expect a better life. Because if you only resist, you can’t have the kind of life you want to live,” he says. “That’s why it’s difficult being Black in America, because you have to balance the yin and the yang all the time.”

Civil War & Reconstruction

The exhibit mentions Hiram Revels, the first Black man elected to Congress, and his “colored” contemporaries. It also includes pictures and information about the Harlem Renaissance, a period of great achievement for Black poets, artists, and scholars.

Mr. Kinsey advocates students to visit the exhibit – especially those at Texas Southern University. “You need to tell all these TSU graduates and students to get their butts on down here, because they’re going to learn more here than they’re going to get in any history class,” he declares. “With anything that happens in America, we always ask, ‘How did it affect Black people?’ And once you answer that, the world opens up.”

Mr. & Mrs. Kinsey pictured at the exhibit in The Holocaust Museum Houston. (Photo by the author.)

At a VIP reception following the tour, Shirley Kinsey revealed: “Bernard and I got married in 1967, and next month February 7th, will be our 57th wedding anniversary,” she said. “We lived on one salary — his — and saved mine. So, when I talk to young people about us having this collection, I say: ‘We didn’t inherit this. We lived on one salary and saved mine, and we spent money on what we wanted to spend money on.’ We started collecting with our travels. We started initially with Native American stuff, because [Bernard] had been a park ranger for the Grand Canyon,” she said.

“I taught school for five years,” she recalled. “I remember Black History Month, and the only thing we talked about during that time was Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and maybe somebody else — two or three other people. When my son went to school years later, that was still going on […] So our kids grew up thinking that Black people didn’t do very much. Other kids in the class grew up thinking that Black people didn’t do very much,” she said. “We did do a lot. We really wanted to focus on the contributions and things that African Americans were able to do to build America, because it’s not just Black history; it’s American history.”

Mr. Kinsey’s remarks revealed their history, too. His love for his wife is palpable: “She is the best part of my day and night,” he said. “We have just had a ball since meeting 60 years ago. In November we met, 60 years ago, at Florida A&M. She was arrested — seriously! — during the civil rights movement [at FAMU]. We were trying to integrate the theaters, and I remember this young lady, at 17 — I said, ‘What the hell are you doing out here?’ — and she had on this cute little dress when she went to jail. You had to get dressed up when you went to jail back then,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe that she had that kind of courage, because Tallahassee in 1963 was like Selma and Montgomery. It was serious. People were losing their lives. And here was this young cute girl from St. Augustine. So that’s how we met.”

Now, they’ve collaborated on a show seen internationally by 16 million people. “This is our 39th city around the world. We’ve been translated in Chinese and Spanish […] We had a show at SoFi [Stadium],” Mr. Kinsey said. “We opened Super Bowl Sunday two years ago. We did five years at Disney. We had 12 million people there. We had 2½ million people at the Smithsonian. So, we are accustomed to big numbers. We built this show for big numbers.”

One central theme of the exhibition is the “Myth of Absence”: that contributions made by African Americans in art, science and politics have been omitted from history books. “The myth of absence says that we, as Black folks, are invisible presences,” Kinsey explained. “Invisible presence means that we’re not part of the story. We’re not part of the narrative, we’re not part of the photograph. It’s like walking into a graveyard with no headstones. And what we’re trying to do is to put headstones, and to bring these people to life by giving them personalities, names and voices.”

He added: “There’s a story that made America, and there’s a story that America made up and literally everything most of us got in high school and college was made up, because we’re not in it. And guess what? The Kinsey Collection works to put us in the story.”

Holocaust Museum Houston (Lester and Sue Smith Campus) is located at 5401 Caroline Street. HMH is closed Mondays (except Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day); open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $22 for adults; $16 for seniors (ages 65+), AARP members and active-duty service-members; always free for children, students ages 18 and under, and college students with valid ID; and free to all visitors Thursdays from 2-5 pm. Parking is available at the Museum’s adjacent lot: $8 for four hours. Tickets are available exclusively online.

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