Art, slavery and civil rights: Black history comes alive at these Midwest museums
Feb. 12--As visitors file through the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection at Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the message becomes clear: Slave documents and Martin Luther King Jr. posters reveal only a narrow view of black history.
The African-American experience is equally a tale of successful entrepreneurs and imaginative artists, of lyrical poets and gifted scientists.
Black history is, after all, American history.
The Kinsey Collection, amassed by Los Angeles philanthropists Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, melds four centuries of African-American art, history and culture into a single, multifaceted look at the black experience in America. The collection also blends the husband-and-wife couple's distinct interests, Bernard's rooted primarily in history and Shirley's primarily in art.
A portion of the collection is on display in Cincinnati through March 4. Other items from the Kinseys' vast stockpile can be seen through April 2 at Disney World in Epcot's American Adventure Pavilion near Orlando, Fla.
At the Ohio museum, pronouncements of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 sit juxtaposed with contemporary African-American bronzes; multi-page slave inventories occupy a glass case near a volume of WWII-era African-American graphic art; 19th-century classified ads offering slaves for sale hang near a photograph of America's first black U.S. senator, Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi.
"The Kinsey Collection is significant in that it tells the story of the African-American experience from well before the U.S. was founded," said Jesse Kramer, creative director for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. "And the collection tells that story not just through artifacts of the slave trade. The collection also celebrates the achievements and contributions that African-Americans have made to this country."
An original copy of "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," by Phillis Wheatley, dates from 1773 and represents the first published book of poetry by an African-American woman.
The 1789 work "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African" by Olaudah Equiano is a rare, first-person account of an individual's capture in Africa, his transportation to and enslavement in America and his eventual success in purchasing his own freedom.
Important works of art in the Kinsey Collection include the oil painting "Landscape Autumn," by Robert S. Duncanson, who earned praise in the 1860s as the first internationally acclaimed African-American landscape artist. Duncanson launched his painting career in this city in the 1840s.
"Other fascinating works include documentations of a baptism in 1595 and a marriage in 1597," said Kramer, pointing out that the records of these free blacks predate the Jamestown settlement.
"African-Americans have been living here from the very beginning," Kramer added. "They've been making important contributions to this country from the very beginning."
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's permanent exhibits fill two stories in an imposing museum set on the banks of the Ohio River. Artifacts address a broad swath of the African-American experience with a particular focus on Cincinnati's role as a major stop along the Underground Railroad.
The exhibit "From Slavery to Freedom" details the lives of America's enslaved peoples, their allies and their liberation, through escape, through purchase and by means of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Freedom Center's 19th-century slave pen dominates the museum's permanent collection. Originally constructed just 60 miles away in Mason County, Ky., the well-preserved log structure was used to temporarily hold slaves en route to markets in the South.
One of the center's newest permanent exhibits, "The Rosa Parks Experience," re-creates via virtual reality what Rosa Parks saw and heard on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 when she famously refused to yield her seat to a white passenger.
Neither the Freedom Center nor the Kinsey Collection downplays these important events in black history. Rather, the aim of the temporary exhibition is to examine often-overlooked African-American contributions alongside better-known tragedies.
This collection "is especially important during these critical times for people to gain a deeper understanding of our history as a nation," Bernard Kinsey said in press materials about the exhibit. "The real history of African-American triumphs and contributions should no longer remain a secret. It should explode into our collective conscience."
Museums throughout the Midwest explore the richness of the African-American experience. Here are some worth checking out:
--Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit. This downtown museum explores the historical and contemporary African-American experience. "The Music and the Times: Photographs by Leni Sinclair," an award-winning photographer of musicians and the countercultural movement of the 1960s-70s, is on display through May.
--DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago. African and African-American history, culture and art fill exhibit spaces at this Washington Park museum. An entire month of programming commemorates black history in February, ranging from a documentary on the life of Emmett Till to the history of hip-hop.
--Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville. A multicultural center dedicated to the life of boxer and activist Muhammad Ali, the museum -- technically not in the Midwest, but only a five-hour drive from Chicago -- interweaves the heavyweight champ's personal artifacts and photographs with displays about his core values of commitment, respect and spirituality. The photographic exhibition "Shining a Light: Experiences of Refugee Women" opens March 8.
--Museums at 18th Vine, Kansas City, Mo. Adjoining museums commemorate music and sports in Kansas City's historically African-American neighborhood. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum parallels important milestones in African-American and baseball history from the 1860s through the 1960s. Next door, the American Jazz Museum showcases the history and the sounds of jazz. Catch a live jazz performance at the museum's Blue Room four days a week.
Amy S. Eckert is a freelance writer.
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