For Tenerra Pitts, who directs Friendship Academy's high school, it was a letter full of sass and spitfire written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1942 in which the noted author rejects — decisively — the attentions of a friend's ex-husband.
Pitts read the letter out loud, clearly relishing every razor-like word, especially the section in which Hurston accuses the man "of lying your way into my life." Hurston declares that if she knew for certain that she would never see the man again, she would celebrate by buying a red dress and dancing all night.
"Uh-huh," Pitts says, nodding in approval. "That's telling it."
For Sanders, a sign in Montgomery, Ala., directing the races to separate drinking fountains — white to the left and "colored" to the right — jolted loose an early memory dating from the late 1940s when the 8-year-old Skipp and his 5-year-old brother were driving to North Carolina with their mother to visit relatives.
Hungry, the family stopped to eat in Northern Virginia. He recalled:
"The man told us that he could make sandwiches for us, but of course we couldn't come inside. We'd have to come to the back door to get them.
"My mother turned to us and asked, 'Are you that hungry, boys?' I could see the anger in her face. My little brother started to nod yes, but I stopped him, and we said, 'No, Ma, we aren't that hungry.'
"She said, 'Thank you, Mister, but you can keep your sandwiches.'"
They piled, unfed, back into the car. Sanders' mother threw her arms around her sons and told them, "'You boys are going to have such a feast when we get to North Carolina.' "
Just as the exhibit brought back Sanders' past, it seemed to help 17-year-old Tanya Frazier locate her future.
During a pre-tour lecture, the Friendship Academy junior raised her hand and asked Bernard Kinsey if the exhibit includes the success stories of as many black women as it does black men.
He replied that because of sexism, black women had an even tougher time making their voices heard than did black men.
"But you can do that," he told her. "Say it after me: 'I can do that.'"
Frazier seemed to take that message to heart. During the tour, she took out her cellphone to show Shirley Kinsey images of her artwork, including a rug that she helped create that incorporates used CDs.
"That's wonderful," Shirley Kinsey said, taking several minutes to peruse the electronic portfolio. "Good for you."
Moments later, someone called for a group portrait. As the students and adults shuffled together, Frazier moved close to Shirley Kinsey and reached out, clasping the older woman's hand.
If you go
"The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey — Where Art & History Intersect" runs through March 2 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Admission: $6-$8. Free for members, Maryland teachers and children ages 6 and younger. Call 443-263-1800 or go to rflewismuseum.org.