If the art of sharing were worth its weight in gold, the amassed cultural treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey would easily personify Ft. Knox. The philanthropist couple have gathered 400 ‘authentic and rare art, artifacts, books, documents and manuscripts that tell the often untold story of African American achievement and contributions.’ The culminating result is an impressive touring exhibit spanning more than 400 years of history aptly titled, “The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey."
More than 3 million people in seven U.S. cities including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. have been exposed and culturally enriched. And now, a global audience can experience ‘the intersect of art and history’ at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Earlier this month, The Kinsey Collection opened to the public at the American Heritage Gallery of the American Adventure Pavilion at EPCOT Center where it will remain until 2016. The private unveiling took place during the 6th Annual Disney Dreamers Academy weekend hosted by Steve Harvey with Essence magazine. The competitive program selects 100 students from across the country to indulge in four days of mentoring workshops facilitated by celebrities like gospel sensation Yolanda Adams, American Idol runner-up Kimberley Locke, Actor Doc Shaw from Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne,” CNN education contributor Dr. Steve Perry, and more.
Bernard Kinsey─patriarch of the namesake collection─also honored the 2013 cohort with a historical lecture, "The Myth of Absence" which aligns with the Kinsey's ultimate goal: education.
A Disney partnership effectively broadens the collection’s outreach, but a unique agreement with the Florida Department of Education fills a void Kinsey believes is omitted by most African American textbooks. The Kinsey’s self-published coffee-table book bears the collection’s title and has been approved to teach K-12 history in Florida schools.
The publication works in concert with the collection as a visual and kinesthetic educational component. Readers embark upon a 198 page, picturesque journey in print that begins in 1632 and travels to the present. The art of Stephen Duncanson and Romare Bearden are complemented by 17th century documents from historical abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., whose legacy encouraged everyone to ignite a dream.
“This exhibit presents truth, but is not an exercise in victimhood,” said Bernard Kinsey to a captive room at EPCOT World Showplace. “We have the courage to uplift and do justice to an integral part of American history that dispels the myth that our history is absent from the whole.”
Cross-referencing visual slides from the collection, Kinsey’s unwavering passion for history reverberated as he described the 1832 slavery ‘Bill of Sale’ that inspired the collection. From his confident podium stance to his matter-of-fact wisdom, he remained candid about everything from the 1619 Mayflower arrival to Buffalo Soldier pride. Images of black bodies lined like sardines beneath a slave ship’s belly were displayed along with the dismay of Dr. Selma Burke’s original mold being used to create Teddy Roosevelt’s likeness on the American dime. The African American sculptor was never given credit. Throughout, Kinsey remained unapologetic in his posture that the African American presence in history is not one of invisibility.
Among the engaged dreamers was 15-year-old Dwight James of Jacksonville, Florida who expressed genuine excitement: “I loved when he said Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. The Indians found America. America has been re-owned,” said James, who dreams of becoming a writer.
Sharing his sentiments was spoken word artist Husain Abd’Allah from Jamaica, NY. The ninth grade homeschooler is a Schomburg Junior Scholar in African American studies who was intrigued by the gallery, “It was such a wonderful exhibit,” he said. “We got to see how it all came together. They had a lantern where you just turn the handle and it starts giving you an overview of the gallery.”
Most impressive for Abd’Allah was Mrs. Fisher’s Cookbook, the first known cookbook by a Black person. Husein, like many in attandance, had never heard this information prior to The Kinsey Collection.
It was Carmen Smith, Vice President of Creative Development of Walt Disney Imageering whose unwavering vision lead to the Kinsey-Disney partnership. She learned about the Collection from Bob Billingslea, former Vice President of Corporate Urban Affairs and Minority Outreach, and eagerly presented the idea to theme park executives. “We saw this as a unique opportunity,” she said. “More than 20 Disney executives were taken to Los Angeles, California to view the entire collection. It was simply magical! There were no hesitations to bring it to the American Gallery.”
The bulk of the Presidential Award-Winning collection remains housed in a converted wine cellar in the Kinsey’s sprawling Pacific Coast home. Of the 400 available pieces, 40 were hand-selected to comprise the Disney exhibit, but every six months they will be rotated until the entire collection has been viewed. To preserve the integrity and protect from light and moisture damage, some items in the exhibit are facsimiles.
Innovative Disney “Imagineers” teamed to create a gallery experience consistent with attractions throughout the resort’s multiple theme parts. Their daunting task was to build an interactive exhibit that brings African American history to life. Anthony Sparks, M.A. served as the writer/consultant for the project. For more than four months, the University of Southern California scholar and former stage actor (“Stomp”) worked to perfect the exhibit. “The big question was how to make a gallery kid-friendly?” he explained. “My goals were simple: appeal to families, all ages, and create something that worked on many levels.”
The project further involved condensing vast material to tell a cohesive story that was not all inclusive but gave a sense of the African American experience and five tenets of The Kinsey Collection: Hope, Belief, Courage, Heritage, and Imagination. Lanterns, symbolic of the freedom path, were given narrative voice by Academy Award winning actress Whoopi Goldberg. Additional A-list celebrities lending their sound were Chaundra Wilson and James Pickens, Jr. (Grey’s Anatomy), Kerry Washington (Scandal), ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer, and others.
For Kinsey and wife Shirley, the realization of their cultural inheritance is an overwhelming achievement and accomplishment. “It now has a voice, a name, a personality,” offered Kinsey.
The Kinsey Family serves as a formidable example of African American resilience and strength. The Florida A&M University alums met during the civil rights movement and remain married 40 years later. Both are Xerox Corporation retirees who mastered the saving money in their early lives together. The dividends have allowed them to travel more than 91 countries and help raise more than $22 million dollars to support HBCU’s. Their son Khalil currently serves as general manager of operations for The Kinsey Collection. While in grade-school, he exhibited an inquisitive nature regarding his family history. Both parents eagerly addressed his cultural thirst. The rest is Kinsey history.
Penny Dickerson is a Florida-based independent journalist. She is a frequent contributor to the Florida Courier, Florida Times-Union and other regional and national publications. Her work can be viewed at pennydickersonwrites.com.