New exhibit at Lewis Museum chronicles black history from 1600s to present

Over the past 181 years, the bill of sale has turned a pale tan. The ink has faded from black to brown and includes elaborate flourishes that seem ill-suited to such a grim and ugly business.

On Feb. 25, 1832, the bill reads, a slave named William Johnson "about eighteen years of age" was sold to the owner of an Alabama plantation for $550 — or roughly $14,000 in today's currency.

"This document changed my life," the Los Angeles-based philanthropist and collector Bernard Kinsey says about the piece of paper he received as a gift in the 1970s from a friend.

"When I opened that FedEx up, I felt like I was holding this young brother in my hands. I wanted to know everything about him. This was a human being, and anyone with a heart would feel for him."

That bill of sale sparked Bernard and Shirley Kinsey's lifelong mission to shine a spotlight on the courage of the hundreds of thousands of slaves who were brought to North America, and the resilience and creativity of their descendants. Over the past four decades, the Kinseys have amassed a collection of more than 400 artifacts and original artworks that span the 1600s to the present.

About 30 percent of what they have acquired is being displayed in Baltimore for the first time starting this weekend at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

"There are things that you'll see here," Bernard Kinsey says, "that you'll never see again."

"The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard & Shirley Kinsey" began Saturday and runs through March 2. Highlights include an early copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and a letter written by Malcolm X to his biographer, Alex Haley. Legal buffs won't want to miss the signed ruling from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that abolished separate public schools for African-American and white students.

In this exhibit, the present links to the past in unexpected ways.

For instance, a haunting 1974 lithograph of a woman's sorrowful face called "Jackie" by the artist Elizabeth Catlett seems to leap back in time and connect with the set of iron shackles from 1850 that were made specially for a woman's slender wrists.

The Kinseys say that their collection is one of the largest holdings of African-American artifacts in private hands. It has toured the country, spending more than six months in 2009-2010 at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. In addition, 40 artifacts are on display until 2016 at Walt Disney World's Epcot Theme Park in Florida.

The Kinsey Collection came to the Lewis through the intervention of museum board member Andrew Bertamini. He's also the Maryland regional president of Wells Fargo Bank, which is sponsoring the exhibit in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

A. Skipp Sanders, the Lewis' executive director, recalls the telephone conversation in which he first became aware that he could bring the Kinsey Collection to Baltimore.

"In the summer of 2012, Andrew told me: 'I have a gift for you. If you want it, this is a slam dunk," Sanders recalled. "I told him, 'If I could come through this phone right now, I would hug you.' "

Bernard and Shirley Kinsey met in 1963 at Florida A&M University, where both were caught up in the civil rights movement. "I met Shirley after she just got out of jail" following a protest, Bernard Kinsey recalls.

The couple married in 1966 and began their lives together by driving to California with their life savings of $26 in a jar on the front seat.

Bernard Kinsey went to work for the Xerox Corp., and over two decades, he rose to the rank of vice president. In 1992, he became co-chairman of Rebuild Los Angeles after the city was decimated by race riots.

The Kinseys began collecting in earnest when their son Khalil was in the third grade and was given a homework assignment to trace his family tree. (Khalil Kinsey now manages the collection and oversees the exhibit installations.)

"We couldn't really go back farther than our grandparents," Bernard Kinsey says. "We couldn't answer some of our son's very basic questions about who we were and where we came from. That isn't unusual for families that were broken up by slavery."

During a special exhibit preview for three area high schools and a middle school on Friday morning, teachers, students and even the museum staff seemed to locate something of themselves in different artifacts.