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Prized African-American treasures on display in Houston: Not about struggle, but achievement

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026 The Kinsey Collection artwork August 2014 Carter The Gambler
William Sylvester Carter, The Gambler. Photo courtesy of © The Kinsey Collection
Khalil Kinsey, from left, with Shirley and Bernard Kinsey at the HMAAC Kinsey Collection reception August 2014
Khalil Kinsey, from left, with Shirley and Bernard Kinsey at the HMAAC Kinsey Collection reception. Photo by Simon Balogun
The Kinsey Collection artwork August 2014 Cultivators
Samuel L. Dunson Jr., The Cultivators. Photo courtesy of © The Kinsey Collection
020 The Kinsey Collection artwork August 2014 Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson in the Song of Freedom, 1936, Song of Freedom Inc., offset lithograph, 42 1/2 by 29 inches. Photo courtesy of © The Kinsey Collection
018 The Kinsey Collection artwork August 2014 Come & Join Us
Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments, Come and Join Us Brothers, United States Soldiers at Camp William Penn, 1863, chromolithograph print, 22 1/2 by 25 inches. Photo courtesy of © The Kinsey Collection
026 The Kinsey Collection artwork August 2014 Carter The Gambler
Khalil Kinsey, from left, with Shirley and Bernard Kinsey at the HMAAC Kinsey Collection reception August 2014
The Kinsey Collection artwork August 2014 Cultivators
020 The Kinsey Collection artwork August 2014 Paul Robeson
018 The Kinsey Collection artwork August 2014 Come & Join Us
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Houston Museum of African American Culture
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The story almost seems like an episode of a beloved old, family sitcom. A son (let’s call him Khalil), invites his friends over to his house on their way out to a party but they get waylaid by an enthusiastic — perhaps to the point of sonly embarrassment — father (we’ll call him Bernard). Dad and Mom want everyone to come in and take a look at their prized collection.

It’s not a collection of music or sports memorabilia, something normal, but instead an expansive presence of African-American art and cultural artifacts. In the climax of the episode, and much to the son’s chagrin, the kids are so entranced by the stories the artifacts tell, the party is long forgotten, and now the father and mother begin to realize that these pieces of art and history need to be shared with the next generation.

 “You can’t own this stuff. You can only be a caretaker."  

But this is not a sitcom. This is one, short tale, told by Khalil Kinsey, of a larger, true story of the Kinsey Collection, now on view at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, and its collectors Bernard, Shirley and Khalil Kinsey.  

“You can’t own this stuff. You can only be a caretaker,” Khalil Kinsey explained during a preview walk-through of the collection with the whole Kinsey family. This stuff, objects of “achievement and accomplishment” as Bernard Kinsey describes them, are now on display throughout the Museum of African-American Culture.

A Collection Shared

Visitors to the museum will find most of the historical and cultural artifacts of the African-American experience in North America on the first floor. The earliest known baptism and marriage record, dated 1595 and 1598 respectively; a first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl; photographs of black Union and Confederate soldiers, and the first African-American congressmen; letters, photographs and artifacts from the civil rights movement, these are the stuff of that achievement and accomplishment found in the gallery.

 “I see too many of our brothers and sisters talking about struggle. I don’t use the word struggle because it does not get you anywhere but tied up in your own knot."  

“When you look at this together you begin to understand the remarkable story and contribution of African-Americans in this country and that’s at the core of what the Kinsey Collection does,” Bernard Kinsey said as he explained why he will not use the word “struggle” when discussing the stories these objects tell. “I see too many of our brothers and sisters talking about struggle.

"I don’t use the word struggle because it does not get you anywhere but tied up in your own knot. What we want you to do is move forward, through and around to get to what your objectives are in your life.“

The second floor gallery’s treasure of visual art from the Harlem Renaissance to the 21st century in many ways emphasizes that point, including pieces by Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence and Lois Mailou Jones as well as well as work from hometown favorite John Biggers. All the artworks seem to have had an intimate place in the Kinseys’ lives. At one point during the preview, Shirley pointed somewhat wistfully to contemporary artist Matthew Thomas’s Absorption and proclaimed how much she misses the work that hung in their living room.

And while Khalil stressed that the collection was about the pieces themselves not the collectors, Bernard touched on the importance of care-taking that he and Shirley had obviously taught their son.

“You need three things for a culture to continue, he explained. “You need artists to create it. You need museums and galleries to show it and you need collectors like ourselves to buy it.

"And if we don’t buy and support our artists what happens? The culture dies.”

A Challenge to Houston

The collection has now been seen by millions of people in the past several years as it has traveled to museums across America, and Bernard Kinsey says bringing it to the fourth largest city in the U.S with the largest African-American population was a “no brainer,” but all three Kinseys go back to the importance of nurturing and cherishing a community’s art and culture, which Bernard then applied to Houston and our need to show more support for our own communities, our Museum of African American Culture and for local arts.

“What does this community want to show its artistic culture?" he asked. "And if you don’t want much you don’t get much. We’re going to challenge this community to do more.

"White, Black, Latino, you’ve got do more. You’ve got to care. You’ve got to want it.”

African American Treasures from The Kinsey Collection is on view at the Houston Museum of African American Culture until Oct. 26.

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