Philanthropists Bernard and Shirley Kinsey

The L.A.-based couple explain how “The Kinsey Collection” explores the intersection of art and history.

Bernard and Shirley Kinsey are guided by the principal of "to whom much is given, much is required." Brought together by activism and married more than four decades, the successful couple has raised millions of dollars for numerous organizations and college programs, including at their alma mater, Florida A&M. They also have a passion for African American history and art and, in one of the largest private collections of African American art, have amassed artifacts, documents and artwork spanning 400 years of history. With education as a goal, the Kinseys have displayed their treasures at numerous venues, including the Smithsonian.


Tavis: Bernard and Shirley Kinsey are the dynamic couple behind a unique art exhibit that celebrates the African American experience in America. The Kinsey Collection explores the intersection of art and history and has so far been viewed by three million people in eight U.S. cities with more on the way, beginning in February of 2013.

The companion book to the exhibit is called “The Kinsey Collection.” Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, an honor to have you both on this program.

Bernard Kinsey: Good to be here.

Tavis: Let me start with whether or not in the Obama era a door has been opened, Bernard, you think, for greater appreciation for African American artifact, and I ask that for all the obvious reasons, because there’s some people for whom Black history doesn’t start until a Black president gets elected.

You and Shirley have been at this for many, many years, but is there something that’s happened, you think, that might lead to a greater embrace and appreciation for our culture, for our history, for our contribution that you’ve been chronicling all these years?

Bernard Kinsey: Well, we started in ’06 with your exhibition, America, I am. I think we sensed a change in America in ’06, ’07, even before Barack Obama became president.

So I think there is more of a willingness to understand this story, but as you know, it’s a story that just hasn’t been told, and it’s the story of the European, the Indian and African building America. So The Kinsey Collection and our family have gone about trying to say that we are part of this story, and that narrative is a powerful narrative of accomplishment and triumphs.

Over the past six years we have been able to reach three million people. We have just had so many actions and so many sit-ins at so many museums, and the general response has been “We didn’t know that.” That’s what we start with any time we do a performance, is we want you to leave and say, “I didn’t know that,” and that starts with Leo Africanus in 1600, and we just take you through the incredible people that lives were lost in obscurity, that what we have done is taken them out of their graves and given them a personality, a name, and a voice.

Tavis: Why for you, Shirley, has this been such a passion project? Because I happen to know both of you well, I’ve known you for years, and without telling your business on national television, both of you, your family is well enough off to go sit in retirement in Hawaii or anyplace else you want to sit.

But you travel the country because you’re passionate about this. Why such a passion for you?

Shirley Kinsey: Well, for one thing, I want our young people to know who they are and whose they are and where they come from, and be empowered by that. The one thing with – when Khalil was about in third grade – Khalil’s our son, yes.

Tavis: Khalil being your son, yeah, exactly.

Shirley Kinsey: Yes, actually, he was born in 1977, that was the year of “Roots.” Of course, then you want to know more about yourself so you can teach your children more about themselves. When he was about in third grade, we realized that “Ebony” and “Jet” wasn’t enough for him to use to do his African American history reports, which he always had to do, and he had to do a family history report.

He came home and he had questions. We called Florida, asked the grandparents certain things, and thought we’d done a great job. Well, when he came back home and said John Carlos can go to Italy with his history and so and so and so can go to France and to Spain and so on. Where can we go?

Tavis: He went to Tallahassee.

Shirley Kinsey: Yeah, Tallahassee, exactly.

Tavis: Or West Palm. (Crosstalk)

Shirley Kinsey: So that really kind of said to us then we needed to do more, and his friends needed to do more. Just briefly, his friends would come over the house and Bernard would do, like, a history report with them, and this is before we actually started exhibiting anywhere, and they wouldn’t want to leave.

We knew we were touching young people at that point, and that they needed to know more and their parents needed to know more so they could use all of this information to empower themselves, and that’s really kind of where our passion comes from.

Tavis: You were a long-time corporate executive, Bernard, and those in corporate America know of your accomplishments. Did you ever imagine that your life would take this kind of turn? Because this really has become your life.

Bernard Kinsey: Yeah. Well, one of the things, Shirley and I have been married 45 years, and we’ve been just so blessed in so many ways, and I told a group of Xerox Black employees on Saturdays you should have many lives, and you should always be looking for that next rock in crossing your stream of life, and that’s what we’ve done.

This notion with The Kinsey Collection, we never thought it would be that. It started with a four-page article, three-page article in “The L.A. Times” in 2005. CAAM approached us about doing a show –

Tavis: CAAM (unintelligible).

Bernard Kinsey: Yeah, the California African American Museum. We did it there, then other museums. But what we’re proud of is that we’ve been able to touch so many people. “The Kinsey Collection” book was adopted by the state of Florida to teach African American history for 3.6 million kids. We got curriculum for K through 12.

So each year we do more. It just keeps going. We got an iPad application that’s coming out in January and it’s just amazing because we keep touching these points. With the exception of “America I Am,” we don’t know anybody else trying to do it quite like this.

So we said this is – I say failure is a four-lane highway, and success is under construction. So what we’re saying is that we’re under construction and we’re driving this thing, and we’re going to build this highway.

Tavis: As we’ve been talking here, Shirley, our director, Jonathan, has been flashing through some of the items in the collection. Give me some sense – I know, of course, but give the audience some sense of what the collection consists of.

There’s a whole book obviously, and we can’t list every item in such a massive collection, but in terms of the kinds of artifacts in your collection, you have painting, you have –

Shirley Kinsey: Paintings, the books, we have manuscripts; we have documents going back to the 1600s, actually. Khalil, our son, teases us because he says Bernard likes the dead artists and I like the living artists.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Shirley Kinsey: That truly has been –

Tavis: So you’ve got a combination.

Shirley Kinsey: I’ve got a combination. Bernard has been the historian in the family for a number of years, and he’s always been a love of history anyway. For me, I’ve always wanted to know what spirits are coming in my house when I’m talking to artists.

So I’ve come to meet a lot of the artists, become friends with them, been able to share their work with others, friends of mine. It has just been amazing, though, this journey that we’ve been on. When Bernard mentioned being able to touch so many people, it renews you.

It allows you to keep going on. It says, “This is why I’m here,” frankly. I’m my grandmother’s child – yeah.

Bernard Kinsey: It’s God speaking to you.

Shirley Kinsey: I’m my grandmother’s child and I used to always say, “Mama always said I had to share,” and that’s what seems to be coming through here.

Tavis: I’m going to go back for a second here, Shirley, to something you said a moment ago, because it hit me so viscerally when you said it.

I’m a lover of art and a collector of art as well, but I never heard it quite phrased the way you just said it, which is that you want to meet artists because you want to know what spirits are coming into your house when you purchase the art.

Shirley Kinsey: Yes.

Tavis: Now, I want to meet the artist to get a discount if I can. (Laughter) You want to meet them, and maybe I should be more mature and have the approach that you have, but tell me more about that, because I take that. I take what you meant by it and I’m fascinated by that.

Shirley Kinsey: Well, for instance, since we’ve been in museums I’ve had artists and dealers approach us and literally want to give us something because they want that artist to be in our collection, and I’ve had to turn it down because it wasn’t so much that I didn’t know the person, I wasn’t crazy about the work anyway, even though I think the dealer, one in particular, sort of knew that, but she said it would help him so much.

I can refer other people to his work, but I can’t really acquire that, because I don’t want that in my space, you know what I mean? With the historical documents, I mentioned Bernard being a historian, which covers everything, Black and white. But I always, like I didn’t want the Ku Klux Klan material in our exhibit. It was something that that negative, the negative that came with that just didn’t sit with me very well.

Tavis: That’s fascinating, Bernard. When you both decided that you didn’t want the Klan stuff in your exhibit, there are some who will say that is a part of history, and just as you don’t want the folk in Texas rewriting the textbooks, to write out certain things that they don’t want students to learn, why would you – and it’s your collection, so you’re entitled to this, but tell me more about why you decided to not include that very important part of the history?

Bernard Kinsey: Well, Shirley and I have –

Shirley Kinsey: (Unintelligible)

Bernard Kinsey: This is Shirley –

Tavis: Yeah, okay.

Bernard Kinsey: Shirley and I don’t totally agree on this.

Shirley Kinsey: Yeah.

Bernard Kinsey: There’s very few things we –

Shirley Kinsey: Disagree on.

Tavis: Forty-seven years, I figured that. We’ll come back to that later.

Bernard Kinsey: But let me say it this way. We do have a 1921 Ku Klux Klan piece, and the thing about The Kinsey Collection, when we started with Leo Africanus in 1600, we got the Dred Scott. We have the fugitive slave bills. We’ve got everything, so we don’t tell the story from a deluded whitened standpoint. Not at all.

What Shirley is – like the hanging, our people being hung, she has resisted that because – and I’ve gone along with that –

Tavis: The lynchings, yeah.

Bernard Kinsey: Yeah. But let me tell you what. We deal specifically with the Jim Crow period. We have a whole section in the book on Jim Crow, you follow me?

So in other words, if you pick this book up, you’re going to learn the accomplishments of Black folks. I’ll give an example – Equiano. Equiano was kidnapped at 9 years old from Nigeria and ended up in the Caribbean, became a captain, sailed all over the world, wrote a book in 1789. This book became the basis for William Wilberforce and William Pitt to start the attack on slavery that ended in 1808. You never heard of him. Six editions. Ignatius Sancho, 1782, born on the slave ship, you follow me? Went on to become an opera singer.

Phyllis Wheatley, more famous than Oprah Winfrey, died in obscurity at 32.

So what we’re saying is these people had lives, they meant something, and what we want to do is to bring them and have them get their proper light. It’s almost like the Unknown Soldier.

That’s why we honor them, because they’re unknown. But we have so many unknowns – Josiah Walls, the first Black congressman from the state of Florida. It was over 100 years before another Black person was elected in Florida, and they all came from Florida A&M.

So I say if you don’t have Florida A&M, would we ever have a Black congressman in the state of Florida? So we made the connection not just with art or history, but we’re trying to get Black folks and white folks to understand this narrative of prejudice, power, and privilege. Those are the three Ps that are operating in America every day that are keeping us from being able to move this thing, and that’s what the president just dealt with during this election.

Tavis: I’m glad you went there. We’re going to go there. Trust me, I’ve got a bunch of questions for both of you about this contemporary moment that we are living in as juxtaposed relative to the history in The Kinsey Collection.

Shirley, before I move off of this, though, I’m glad to know, first of all, having known you for 25 years, I’m glad to know that there is something y’all actually disagree on. (Laughter) I’ve never seen that before in all the years I’ve known you, so it’s just cute for me to know you actually disagree on something. I’ve never seen you sit this far apart, as a matter of fact. There’s actually two inches between the two of y’all, which never happens.

But tell me, I’m curious, and I want to get your take, I’ve heard Bernard’s. Give me your take on why that Klan stuff bothers you so much.

Shirley Kinsey: I think it’s just painful, for one thing.

Tavis: Okay, I accept that.

Shirley Kinsey: When I think about it, I can understand why my grandmother never really talked about the time of slavery that she obviously had to have known about, being born in 1887. Her grandparents had to have been born into slavery. I’ve always said with our collection, now, these items may be in our collection at home, but not in the exhibit, because what I want to show to our young people, I want them to start interviewing their grandparents.

I want them to start learning their own history. I want them to start going through the stuff that we have, identifying those photos that are in the house, use the technology that’s available at their fingertips now to record all this stuff, and I wanted to focus on the positive.

Not so much that slavery didn’t exist, and we’ve got shackles in the exhibit and signs that said I could go anywhere but a certain beach. But on the other hand, I want our people to be empowered by all the accomplishments, all the things that we did in building this country.

And I’m proud to say sometimes, let everybody know we got dibs here, okay? We didn’t always come here as slaves. We came here as free people initially.

Tavis: I empathize with your point, because you referenced that Khalil, your son, was born in 1977, the year that “Roots” came out, and my mother and I, who’s watching right now, she watches every night.

Shirley Kinsey: Okay.

Tavis: Hey, Mom. I love her to death.

Bernard Kinsey: Hey, Mom.

Tavis: But we won’t even discuss this anymore because it’s such a cantankerous conversation every time we get into it. But when “Roots” came out, my mother wouldn’t let us watch it, and she wouldn’t let us watch it, at least not the initial nights, because she couldn’t take it.

Shirley Kinsey: Yeah.

Bernard Kinsey: Yeah.

Tavis: She couldn’t take it, and she was not going to let us sit there and see that part. I think maybe as the nights went on, she let us watch a little bit of it. But I was a grown man before I saw “Roots” from beginning to end, and now I own the whole collection and I watch it. I literally sit myself down annually every year in my own house, by myself.

Shirley Kinsey: Yeah.

Tavis: I sit and I watch Alex Haley’s epic work from beginning to end every year, just for my own connection.

Shirley Kinsey: Right, yeah, yeah.

Bernard Kinsey: Yeah.

Tavis: So I understand that sentiment about it being a bit troubling and depressing in that regard. But Bernard, you said something a moment ago, though, that I want to come back to, which is this notion that you want people to know that these Black folk had lives, however short for some of them, however many died, as you said, in obscurity.

They had lives, and their lives mattered. I’m fast-forwarding now to a contemporary moment. With so many African Americans who still themselves feel like their lives don’t matter, and in the larger demos they are treated by this country in so many ways still, in the era of the first Black president, as if their lives don’t matter. Can you juxtapose those two things for me?

Bernard Kinsey: Well, here’s how we see it. Most Black folks got holes in their hearts, okay? And the hole in their heart is because we don’t know who we are and where we came from. We do a thing called What You Didn’t Learn in High School History, and we’ve done it now with about 35,000 people around the country.

We’ve seen it – Black, white, Haitians, Jews, don’t matter, you follow me? Because the African American experience touched all of them. Okay? So what we say, when you start feeling that hole that’s in your heart by understanding who you are and where you came from, and this book helps you because the reason that our young people are killing each other is because they don’t think they’re valuable.

They don’t think they’re valuable. They think shoes are more valuable than they are. So we’ve seen this. We had a lady that’s in our collection, Bisa Butler. She is just a fabulous young lady. She came to our opening at the Smithsonian.

Let me just say this about the Smithsonian. Here we are, The Kinsey Collection, the only private family collection in the American History Museum, one of the most visited museums in the world, and on the main floor. It just was mind-blowing.

I knew we were there, but until I had went in and saw it, I told Shirley, I said, “I can’t hardly believe this.”

Shirley Kinsey: Uh-huh, yeah.

Bernard Kinsey: She tells us – she came for the opening. She wrote us a letter and she said, “My mom died and I have nothing that says that she was there. When I went and say The Kinsey Collection at the Smithsonian, I can tell my daughters that I was there.”

Shirley Kinsey: Because her piece is hanging (unintelligible).

Bernard Kinsey: Her piece is in there. Do you know what? For her, that’s powerful. It’s powerful for everybody to have this connection with themselves. So what we do by filling this hole with all of these positive brothers and sisters.

Nancy Prince went to Russia in the 1820s. James Forten had the first integrated work force in 1823. I could go on for a week. All of these brothers and sisters accomplished extraordinary things. Jenny Slew sues in 1765 and wins back pay because she told them she wasn’t a slave. She said, “My mama was white, so I’m free.”

Tavis: This is long before Lily Ledbetter.

Bernard Kinsey: Exactly, you follow me? So what we do, we tell our Jewish friends that before the Holocaust, you follow me? Not a victim thing, but before the Holocaust, we were there, you follow me? And we had all of the same – the Elie Wiesels, all these different people – we had those too.

Not as a competitive thing, but to say that we are in this together, you follow me? We are eye-level with it, and that’s what I want our brothers and sisters to understand. They can walk in there with their chests out, because they matter.

When people leave The Kinsey Collection, What You Didn’t Learn in High School, that’s what they do.

Tavis: Shirley, how do you process, personally, being able to travel the country with this Kinsey Collection, to see your collection on display at the Smithsonian in the era of an African American president, given where you and Bernard came from, out of Florida.

Shirley Kinsey: Yeah, yeah. I tell the story about it being 1963, after the March on Washington, which of course I didn’t participate in. But going to (unintelligible) and Florida A&M University that freshman year, and after two weeks being there demonstrations were happening, and I became a part of that.

I talk about being – I actually went to jail, 17 years old, I’m in jail, but because of something I believe in. The idea of being arrested.

Bernard Kinsey: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Yeah.

Shirley Kinsey: Yeah. The idea of being arrested right down the street from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to then 2010, being able to have an exhibit right down the street from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., it was really, really something. Did I say Washington?

Bernard Kinsey: Florida.

Tavis: Florida, yeah, I know what you meant, yeah.

Shirley Kinsey: You know what I meant. But it has just been amazing, it truly has. While we were there, or actually, just before we opened there, Artis Lane, who had painted a portrait of us –

Tavis: (Unintelligible) yeah, sure.

Shirley Kinsey: – actually, this was 2009. She actually had a bust of Sojourner Truth unveiled by Mrs. Obama.

Bernard Kinsey: At the Capitol.

Shirley Kinsey: And now it’s at the Capitol Visitor Center.

Bernard Kinsey: Visitor Center.

Shirley Kinsey: So to have had – actually, to attend the ceremony there and to see Artist as a Black Woman unveil a Black woman and have it unveiled by a Black woman, it was really, really transformative, actually. That could not have happened if there’s an Obama (unintelligible) office.

Tavis: Let me ask a quick question about FAMU, since we mentioned you all met at FAMU. It’s a great institution, and it’s been in the news a lot lately. Thankfully it’s dying down, but it’s been in the news a lot lately for that hazing incident, where the band leader ended up being killed.

The president has since resigned, but even white Americans have heard this story because it’s been in “The New York Times” and everywhere else for days and days and days. You were once on the board of trustees?

Bernard Kinsey: Yeah.

Tavis: At FAMU?

Bernard Kinsey: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: Just quickly tell me what’s happening there and how you feel about this beloved institution of yours.

Bernard Kinsey: Well, I’ll tell you real quick. First of all, no FAMU – FAMU graduates 10 percent of all the African Americans in the country in the story. More than the PAC 12, the PAC 10 and the Ivy League put together, so we need FAMU.

Secondly, I’m on the search committee for the new band director, so we’re going to get the hundred back on the field, okay, in September.

Tavis: Right.

Bernard Kinsey: This institution is powerful, and it was named the number one school in America by “Time” and “Princeton Review” back in 1987. So we have accomplished a great deal. It’s unfortunate we had this incident, but let me tell you this – the Florida A&M band has been an institution for almost a hundred years, and I played in the hundred in 1960s.

So we’re not going to throw away that institution because of this tragic incident, however tragic it is. Penn State didn’t stop playing football, you follow me?

Tavis: Absolutely.

Bernard Kinsey: And nobody else has. So we’re back. We just received a big grant from the government on some research things. We’re graduating more Ph.D.s in physics and math and sciences than any other institution in the country. Why? Because we don’t go after just the talented 10. We’re educating all of these Black folks, okay?

Tavis: Shirley, let me ask you – I’ve got about three minutes to go here. Let me ask you quickly, because I want to cover two more areas here. Bernard mentioned you’ve been married 45, 46 years now.

Shirley Kinsey: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: No marriage is perfect, obviously, but I think it does mean something in the context of Black history to have not just an African American president, but one who has a Black wife, two beautiful Black children.

Bernard Kinsey: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: That family means something, yes?

Bernard Kinsey: Oh, yeah. The images are powerful.

Shirley Kinsey: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it certainly does mean something, and not that I put us in the same category by any means. I like the idea of us being where we are and having young people understand that we were not always where we are. We didn’t always start out this way.

We came to California with $26 and a job. No car, and I didn’t know how to drive. But we set out to make a life. We started, we saved my salary. Bernard came from – I was a grandmother’s child; he came from a family of a mother and father whose mother didn’t have to work.

Dad provided for his five children and his wife, and so in his mind, even though I worked, we could live on one salary, and that’s what we did. Saved his raises, and made a life. So I want people to understand that we’ve done this, but we’re just regular, ordinary people.

Bernard Kinsey: And frugal.

Shirley Kinsey: And frugal. Very frugal, as a matter of fact. (Laughter)

Bernard Kinsey: Other than travel and art. Those are the two things –

Shirley Kinsey: Our cars are 15 years old.

Bernard Kinsey: Yeah, we drive 15-year cars.

Tavis: That’s ’cause we got no money left. (Laughter) I know where y’all travel, and the way you travel and the art you collect –

Bernard Kinsey: Yeah, but you know what? William Wilberforce says what is it only that I can do with my talent? I think that what we’ve done here is all of this 45 years together with our son, Khalil. Let me tell you what, as a dad, I got my son and my wife and we work on this together.

Just today, we just closed a deal in terms of doing a big show next year, the first quarter. How you going to do this? You know what, the imagery, when we go into a city and they see a family, an African American family, it’s powerful. It’s powerful.

Tavis: That’s why I love them. I’ve known them for years, an honor to finally have them on this program. Their collection is called The Kinsey Collection, “Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Where Art and History Intersect” is the text. If you get a chance to see this collection as it travels around the country, do yourself a favor and empower, inspire, and quite frankly, entertain yourself with some aspects of The Kinsey Collection. Bernard and Shirley, I love you. Glad to have you on the program.

Bernard Kinsey: Good to be here, thank you so much.

Shirley Kinsey: Thank you. Love you back.

Tavis: Congratulations. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: January 14, 2013 at 1:27 pm