Before nearly ten years ago, not many African Americans knew much about the Black artists active across the country during the interwar period. Needless to say that all of them belonged to the generation that experienced severe segregation, and felt immensely inspired by the Harlem Renaissance.
Unmistakably, among the most influential figures from that period is Hale Woodruff. He did not just act as an artist, but also as a devoted educator and mentor whose socially charged agenda stood at the forefront of Black emancipation.
Namely, Woodruff came to be such an important agent after forming as an artist in Paris and Mexico, as a disciple of Diego Rivera. Alongside being one of the leading art teachers at historically black colleges and universities at a time when there were barely very few people in that discipline, in 1942 the artist launched a series of national art exhibitions for African American artists called The Atlanta University Art Annuals. Some two decades later, in 1963, together with another African-American artist and writer Romare Bearden, Woodruff formed The Spiral Group, a collective of Black artists willing to contribute their art to civil rights struggle that paved the way for further development of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now, when it comes to his oeuvre, Woodruff is mostly celebrated for his astonishing set of six murals. The artist was commissioned by Talladega College in Alabama in 1938 to depict the historic events to honor the transition from slavery to freedom to be displayed at the new Savery Library, then under construction. The 1839 Amistad slave mutiny was not familiar to Woodruff since this epic event was absent from most history books, so he had to undertake research to get acquainted with the subject matter.
The first three murals were produced in 1939 and presented on the centennial anniversary of this historic event; they are featuring the scenes of the mutiny, the trial, and the captives return o to Africa. Alongside these depictions of heroic resistance to slavery, Woodruff painted another set of three murals that celebrated the history of Talladega College, which opened in 1867 as an educational facility for a new population of freed slaves.
Shortly after they were presented for the first time, these murals large in scale and bright in color sparked national attention, especially in terms of the African American community, which favored them as a vigorous statement of hope and pride for racial equality; today, they are still perceived the same.
The first cycle of the murals includes The Mutiny on the Amistad, The Trial of the Amistad Captives, and The Repatriation of the Freed Captives. The second consists of the murals The Underground Railroad, The Building of Savery Library, and Opening Day at Talladega College.
As mentioned, The Mutiny on the Amistad revisits the 1839 slave rebellion after 53 Africans were kidnapped from Mende country (modern Sierra Leone) and sold into the Spanish slave trade. The women, children, and men were put in alcoves and exposed to horrific circumstances made many of becoming ill, violated, and eventually dead. The Africans led by Senbeh Pieh (Cinque’) revolted, took control of the ship, and wanted to go back to Africa; however, the ship was eventually seized by an American naval vessel, the rebels jailed and accused of piracy and murder.
The Trial of the Amistad Captives features the judicial fight for freedom as the first public civil rights case in America. The remaining 35 surviving Africans won the case in 1841 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Out of this case and the Amistad Committee, the Mende Association was erected and later transformed into the American Missionary Association (A.M.A.) from which Talladega College emerged.
The third mural from the first set called The Repatriation of the Freed Captives depicts the landing of the repatriated slaves on the shores of Africa.
The Underground Railroad is the first mural from the second set which represents the story of the Underground Railroad centered on a supreme heroic act that lasted from the colonial period to the late 19th century culminating in the period of 1830-1865.
Opening Day at Talladega College features the former slaves now freedmen and the poverty they were exposed to after the liberation. For that reason, they are represented alongside domestic animals, piles of fruits and vegetables, musical instruments, a plow, and sugar cane to pay tuition on the first day of registration followed by the counselor and curriculum coordinator and juxtaposed against the oldest building on campus.
The last mural, titled The Building of Savery Library, depicts the erection of the library on the ground of a former barn destroyed by fire. The construction began in September 1937 under the supervision of Joseph Fletcher, who gathered an interracial work consisting of many Talladega students.
In 2011 President Billy C. Hawkins and the Talladega College Board of Trustees requested the conservation of the whole series for which the art conservators from the High Museum in Atlanta conducted the process to preserve the murals for future generations.
After a yearlong restoration process, the murals were presented via the 2012 traveling exhibition Rising Up, co-curated by Jacquelyn Serwer, Chief curator at NMAAHC, and Rhea Combs, Museum curator, and organized by the High Museum in Atlanta in collaboration with Talladega College. The exhibition was accompanied by a valuable book that brought new insights about the first murals that captured the Amistad story in the twentieth century.
After they traveled across the United States, in 2020 $50 million worth of Amistad murals have finally returned to Talladega College in their permanent location inside the college's Dr. William R. Harvey Museum of Art.
Looking in retrospect, the Amistad murals have become an important example of revisiting institutionalized emancipatory practices that enforced the empowerment of the African-American community that has struggled and still is exposed to hatred as we’ve seen in the past few months with the unexpected police targeting and violence upon Black people. Therefore, Woodruff's paintings are rightfully appraised as the pioneering agenda for reclaiming the Black histories for the purpose of justice and nationwide racial reconciliation.
In 1938 Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) accepted a commission to paint a series of murals for Talladega College, one of the nation's first colleges established for blacks after the Civil War. Installed in the institution's newly constructed library, the six murals portray noteworthy events in the rise of blacks in America from slavery to freedom. Today they stand out as provocative and relevant symbols of the centuries-long struggle for civil and human rights. Essays consider the development of the murals, their presence and significance at Talladega College, and Woodruff's impact on American mural painting in the years surrounding the Talladega project. An illustrated essay details all phases of the murals' conservation. Illustrated works span Woodruff's career and include oil studies; support materials such as prints, drawings, and photographs; and mural cycles he made in Mexico while studying with Diego Rivera.
Featured image: Hale Woodruff - Mutiny on Amistad, 1938. Collection of Savery Library, Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama.