African-American Art & History Intersect at the Freedom Center


After 10 years, the “Kinsey African-American Art & History Collection” is coming back to Cincinnati. The exhibit, which starts November 4 and stretches through the new year at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, is one of the largest private collections of art and artifacts illuminating the black experience in America.

“It’s a huge collection of artwork and artifacts that spans centuries,” says Jesse Kramer, the Freedom Center creative director. “We’re fortunate enough to get a little slice of a much larger collection.”

“These pieces redefine the African-American identity and representation in the arts,” adds Jamie Glavic, Freedom Center’s assistant vice president, marketing and communications.

The collection, which will be displayed in the Freedom Center’s Skirball Gallery, has the first-known African-American baptismal record from the late 16th century as well as the first-known African-American marriage document from the same era.

Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, the proprietors of the collection, wanted to tell a positive story about African-American accomplishments that are sometimes overshadowed by the history of oppression in this country. Bernard started the collection after he was gifted a bill of sale of an enslaved individual.

“He said something to the effect that … he was holding the fate of that person in his hands and that everything that happened afterward and everything that led up to that bill of sale was part of that person’s history,” says Kramer.

The 4,000-square-foot exhibit also will feature prominent local and regional black leaders in history, including John Rankin’s “Letters on American Slavery,” from 1826, which addressed the evils of slavery. Rankin, a white preacher, operated a stop on the Underground Railroad out of his home in the village of Ripley in Brown County, Ohio.

“It’s a significant item that we’re acquiring. We champion courageous abolitionists from the Underground Railroad era … to tell the story of the importance of the Ohio River,” says Dr. Ashley Jordan, curator for the Freedom Center. “People like John Rankin definitely put Ohio and the Underground Railroad on the map.”

The signed 1913 edition of “The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar” is also included in the collection. Dunbar, a Dayton native and friend of the Wright brothers, was the first internationally acclaimed African-American poet and had a white following, which was unheard of at the time. Dunbar, who was also a novelist and playwright, had his work appear in publications such as Harper’s Weekly and the Saturday Evening Post.

“There is this idea of the ‘myth of absence’ of African-Americans in history. There’s this idea that African-Americans have not been part of the American story and its accomplishments, and [they] should be celebrated but they haven’t been kept track of,” says Kramer. “The reason that [the Kinseys] collected all of these signed pieces is to pull these people out of history and put you as close as you could possibly be [to them]. It’s very personal.”

There is also a personal artifact related to the Kinseys in the collection: a 1903 letter from Carrie Kinsey, Bernard’s second cousin, to President Theodore Roosevelt. She wrote that a man came and hired her brother to do a job for $5, but sold him into slavery. This letter is the only document that proves Carrie’s brother ever existed.

Other notable pieces in the exhibit include: the 1892 edition of “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup; a 1963 letter from Malcolm X to Alex Haley; a painting by prestigious African-American artist Delilah Pierce; the 1858 Dred Scott decision document; and other pieces up to contemporary times.

“This is probably one of the best exhibits that brings together art and history. It represents a continuum of time for African-American history,” says Jordan. “This exhibit does the best job of displaying history through 3-D objects. It’s a tangible link to our past and that’s what I love about this collection.”

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 East Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information, call 513.333.7500 or visit