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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. More than 35 years ago, philanthropist Bernard Kinsey acquired an 1832 bill of sale for a slave named William Johnson. Since then, Kinsey and his wife Shirley have made it their lives' work to help tell the full story of African Americans. Over the decades, they've gathered artwork and documents and as NPR's Allison Keyes reports, the Kinsey collection now spans 400 years of history. It's on display in Baltimore at the Reginald F. Lewis museum.

DOMINIC GILLIAM: See, it looks like (unintelligible) like Africa, but not necessarily like Africa.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Sixteen-year-old Dominic Gilliam was among a group of high school students clustered around an abstract painting by African-American painter and scholar Norman Lewis.

GILLIAM: It might just be lost souls.

KEYES: The piece features earth-toned faceless figures fading into a deepening sea of color.

GILLIAM: There's a lot of things I can interpret from that.

KEYES: Seventeen-year-old Alexander Bullock contemplated Lewis' painting called "Hence We Come," and some of the other items in the exhibition. There's a 1942 letter written by historian, author Zora Neale Hurston in which she uses her razor sharp pen and quick wit to reject a suitor. She writes, quote, "if you will be decent enough to die, I will buy me a red dress, send myself some flowers of congratulation and come to your funeral."

Dulcet Kenneth Johnston(ph) led the students through the works collected by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey and the rapt looks on the faces of the Reginald F. Lewis high school students as they walked through are exactly why the philanthropist chose to share a collection of documents and artifacts that spotlight not black pain, but the strength and resilience of African-Americans.

Junior Tonisha Owens was stopped in her tracks by an 1854 letter carried by another 17-year-old, a slave named Francis. Owen struggled to read the faded script.

TONISHA OWENS: She is the finest chamber...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Chambermaid.

OWENS: Chambermaid has ever seen in my life.

KEYES: The letter was from a plantation owner's wife to a slave dealer saying she needed to sell her chambermaid, Francis, to pay for horses. Owens says the exhibition sent her a powerful message about the things African-Americans have been able to do, sometimes under extreme duress.

OWENS: We accomplished so many things. Like, they went through slavery and still accomplished things so we can't say, oh, I'm tired so I don't feel like doing this. So that's not an excuse.

SKIP SANDERS: I have a particular interest in school students seeing it.

KEYES: Skip Sanders is executive director of the Lewis Museum and says it is important for people, especially African-Americans, to understand that the legacy of what happened to black people is part of the fabric of American history.

SANDERS: We've all, I think, even currently, gotten a sort of distorted picture of what American history is and how this contribution has to be woven in and through it.

KEYES: Sanders has favorites of this exhibition.

SANDERS: I find that I actually get emotional when I stare at this particular case.

KEYES: Part of the thrill, he says, is that original historical documents are on display.

SANDERS: The Dred Scott decision and next to it, an early copy of the Emancipation Proclamation going back to 1862 so you go from here, you look at the Brown versus the Board of Ed final page where the decision is made, that separate but equal isn't and the signatures of the justices and their various colors of ink.

BERNARD KINSEY: Jim Wakefield, I love this brother.

KEYES: But no one discusses this collection with more enthusiasm and depth than Bernard Kinsey himself.

KINSEY: You didn't think it was (unintelligible) either, did you? Jimmy Winkfield won the 1901 and 1902 Kentucky Derby. He was so good, he won 2,600 races...

KEYES: Kinsey was speaking to a room full of journalists and admirers at a convention in Orlando where a small portion of the family's collection is on display at the Epcot Center.

KINSEY: What we're saying is we want to put African-Americans in the dialogue. Put us in the stories. You follow me? Because if you get used to not seeing us, you kind of make sure that that's OK when it really isn't OK.

KEYES: Bernard Kinsey built a fortune through savings, investments and a lucrative corporate career and he's used it to amass more than 400 pieces that speak to the courage of African-Americans. The family is also very focused on what this collection means to young people who aren't learning about this history in schools.

Back at the Lewis Museum, Junior Dominic Gilliam was stunned and inspired by the things he learned.

GILLIAM: When you just look at all these things, we have just as much power as anybody else, I guess.

KEYES: The Kinsey collection is on display at the Lewis Museum through March 2014. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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