Seventeen-year-old Tonisha Owens stared wide-eyed at the faded script on an 1854 letter. It was once carried 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.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. More than 35 years ago, philanthropist Bernard Kinsey acquired an 1832 bill of sale for a slave named William Johnson. Since then, Kinsey and his wife Shirley have made it their lives' work to help tell the full story of African Americans. Over the decades, they've gathered artwork and documents and as NPR's Allison Keyes reports, the Kinsey collection now spans 400 years of history. It's on display in Baltimore at the Reginald F. Lewis museum.
DOMINIC GILLIAM: See, it looks like (unintelligible) like Africa, but not necessarily like Africa.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Sixteen-year-old Dominic Gilliam was among a group of high school students clustered around an abstract painting by African-American painter and scholar Norman Lewis.
GILLIAM: It might just be lost souls.
KEYES: The piece features earth-toned faceless figures fading into a deepening sea of color.
GILLIAM: There's a lot of things I can interpret from that.
KEYES: Seventeen-year-old Alexander Bullock contemplated Lewis' painting called "Hence We Come," and some of the other items in the exhibition. There's a 1942 letter written by historian, author Zora Neale Hurston in which she uses her razor sharp pen and quick wit to reject a suitor. She writes, quote, "if you will be decent enough to die, I will buy me a red dress, send myself some flowers of congratulation and come to your funeral."
Dulcet Kenneth Johnston(ph) led the students through the works collected by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey and the rapt looks on the faces of the Reginald F. Lewis high school students as they walked through are exactly why the philanthropist chose to share a collection of documents and artifacts that spotlight not black pain, but the strength and resilience of African-Americans.
Junior Tonisha Owens was stopped in her tracks by an 1854 letter carried by another 17-year-old, a slave named Francis. Owen struggled to read the faded script.
TONISHA OWENS: She is the finest chamber...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Chambermaid.
OWENS: Chambermaid has ever seen in my life.
KEYES: The letter was from a plantation owner's wife to a slave dealer saying she needed to sell her chambermaid, Francis, to pay for horses. Owens says the exhibition sent her a powerful message about the things African-Americans have been able to do, sometimes under extreme duress.
OWENS: We accomplished so many things. Like, they went through slavery and still accomplished things so we can't say, oh, I'm tired so I don't feel like doing this. So that's not an excuse.
SKIP SANDERS: I have a particular interest in school students seeing it.
KEYES: Skip Sanders is executive director of the Lewis Museum and says it is important for people, especially African-Americans, to understand that the legacy of what happened to black people is part of the fabric of American history.
SANDERS: 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.
KEYES: Sanders has favorites of this exhibition.
SANDERS: I find that I actually get emotional when I stare at this particular case.
KEYES: Part of the thrill, he says, is that original historical documents are on display.
SANDERS: The Dred Scott decision and next to it, an early copy of the Emancipation Proclamation going back to 1862 so you go from here, you look at the Brown versus the Board of Ed final page where the decision is made, that separate but equal isn't and the signatures of the justices and their various colors of ink.
BERNARD KINSEY: Jim Wakefield, I love this brother.
KEYES: But no one discusses this collection with more enthusiasm and depth than Bernard Kinsey himself.
KINSEY: You didn't think it was (unintelligible) either, did you? Jimmy Winkfield won the 1901 and 1902 Kentucky Derby. He was so good, he won 2,600 races...
KEYES: Kinsey was speaking to a room full of journalists and admirers at a convention in Orlando where a small portion of the family's collection is on display at the Epcot Center.
KINSEY: What we're saying is we want to put African-Americans in the dialogue. Put us in the stories. You follow me? Because if you get used to not seeing us, you kind of make sure that that's OK when it really isn't OK.
KEYES: Bernard Kinsey built a fortune through savings, investments and a lucrative corporate career and he's used it to amass more than 400 pieces that speak to the courage of African-Americans. The family is also very focused on what this collection means to young people who aren't learning about this history in schools.
Back at the Lewis Museum, Junior Dominic Gilliam was stunned and inspired by the things he learned.
GILLIAM: When you just look at all these things, we have just as much power as anybody else, I guess.
KEYES: The Kinsey collection is on display at the Lewis Museum through March 2014. Allison Keyes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.