Never-before-seen African-American artifacts creating a buzz in Atlanta

ATLANTA – The nationally acclaimed exhibition, The Kinsey Collection, is in Atlanta for the first time since its inception.

The exhibit at the Atlanta History Center is creating a buzz, in part because it features never before displayed artifacts, including an early edition of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave.

“A young man called me eight months ago about a stack of books his uncle had been collecting for 75, 80 years,” said philanthropist and avid collector Bernard Kinsey, who began the collection over 35 years ago, along with his wife Shirley.

“We purchased these books about a month before the Oscars, really not thinking about 12 Years a Slave quite being so impactful. We got it because it’s really one of the first-person slave narratives that’s important to be in our collection.”

Aside from Northrup’s harrowing memoir, which inspired the Oscar-winning movie, W.E.B Du Bois’s first edition copy of his groundbreaking book, The Souls of Black Folk, is also on public display for the first time ever.

In fact, out of 130 items at the Atlanta History Center, on display through July 13, there are at least 15 new artifacts, which include the earliest known African-American marriage record dating back to 1598.

“We have another book that has never been shown outside the house,” said Mr. Kinsey. “A personally autographed book from Mrs. Rosa Parks to Shirley [Kinsey].”

Bernard Kinsey’s wife Shirley said their collection continues to pull in the crowds because the exhibits are changed to fit the city.

“It always brings out somebody who’s connected to something,” she said.

The couple has amassed one of the largest private collections of artwork and artifacts tracing African-American history spanning more than 400 years.

The Kinsey Collection, which now has around 400 items, includes everything from rare art, photographs and manuscripts that showcase African-American achievement and contribution. The idea is to dispel myths and promote dialogue about the role of black Americans in the making of America.

The exhibits have been viewed by close to 14 million visitors in 15 cities across the United States.

Some of the most notable items include letters by Zora Neale Hurston and Martin Luther King Jr., correspondence between Malcolm X and his biographer Alex Haley, slave shackles, a first-edition copy of poems by Phillis Wheatley, and 17th-century slave documents.

The exhibition has been on national tour since 2006. Since then, The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey has been on display at numerous museums, including in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The EPCOT Center has roughly 40 pieces at any given time on a rotating basis through 2016.

Mr. Kinsey said from his experience “children and young people are deeply affected by the collection.” It raises their self-esteem and gives them a new sense of purpose, he said.

“We’ve had over 150,000 students come to The Kinsey Collection. We believe from what we’ve been able to see and from the surveys and testimonials, when young African-Americans learn more about their history they change their behavior. That is something we found gratifying, particularly with our son Khalil.”

This latest incarnation is part of an extended nationwide tour in collaboration with Wells Fargo. The exhibition moves to Houston once it finishes its Atlanta run.

Lisa Frison, VP African-American segment leader at Wells Fargo, said the ongoing partnership with the family was initiated by a chance meeting with Bernard and Shirley’s only son, Khalil.

“It was fortuitous in the timing because we were looking for a way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and we really wanted to do it in a way that was unique and authentic,” said Frison. “We had a shared vision to tell the story of African-American history being part of the fabric of American history and the Kinsey Collection was a great way for us to do that.”

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti