70 years later, Talladega College's black history murals gain resonance

Woodruff was then a rising artist-educator inspired by issues of social injustice. Yet interest had faded in the sensational case of the 53 Africans who staged a revolt as the schooner made its way from Cuba to a Caribbean plantation, killing the captain and cook and attempting to sail toward Africa. Following Steven Spielberg's celebrated 1997 "Amistad" movie, of course, the story is now commonly known and taught in world history texts.

Woodruff's series of three monumental Amistad murals, the first depiction of the incident in the 20th century, is the centerpiece of a major High Museum exhibition opening Saturday, “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College.” Ironically, like the Amistad itself, Woodruff's murals have sailed a course of broad exposure followed by relative obscurity.

The Amistad story had been "largely erased" by history by the time Woodruff received his art education in Indiana and went on to found the Atlanta University  (now Clark Atlanta University) art department in 1931, the High's American art curator Stephanie Heydt explained. Any recounting might have "felt uncomfortable" during the challenging years of Reconstruction, she noted, especially in the Jim Crow South.

Woodruff and his murals were chronicled then in Time and Life magazines and included in publications of leading black thinkers W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. Though they have been revered at the central Alabama college for which they and a second series of three Woodruff murals (commemorating Talladega’s 1867 founding) were commissioned, they have slowly retreated from the art world's radar.

But the three-month exhibit opening today, which will be followed by a seven-city, three-year tour that includes stops in New York and Washington, promises the sort of broad exposure that the murals have never encountered while on view for seven decades at the college's Savery Library.

Wider consideration of these major American art works is long overdue, said Michael Simanga, executive director of the National Black Arts Festival, which features "Rising Up" on its summer schedule.

"In the 1930s these paintings caused such a stir that it forced people to go back and have a conversation about that incident and brought it back into the social consciousness," Simanga said. "After that, the next conversation about it was when Spielberg made the movie. So art is once again is making us have this universal conversation that we need to have."

The brightly colored Amistad murals, installed in Savery Library's lobby on the centennial of the 1839 mutiny, depicts the uprising, Supreme Court trial and return to Africa of the freed captives. In 1942, Woodruff completed a cycle of companion murals also on civil rights themes, portraying the Underground Railroad, Talladega’s founding as one of the country’s first colleges established to serve the emancipated and the building of Savery Library.

The murals are large, ranging roughly in size from 6 by 10 feet to 6 by 20 feet, and convey a substantial amount of history. Yet there was a contemporary imperative as well in Talladega president Buell Gallagher's decision to commission Woodruff.

Gallagher assumed leadership of the school in 1933, when violence toward African-Americans in the South was on the rise. In fact, that same year the Scottsboro Boys incident -- in which nine young black men were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train stopped near Scottsboro, Ala. -- commanded national headlines. Scottsboro is but 100 miles north of Talladega.

Though it was the Depression, Gallagher launched plans to build Savery Library (named for former slave William Savery, who had initiated plans for the college by securing assistance from the Freedmen's Bureau and the American Missionary Association) for the college and the greater Talladega community. "A symbolic counterpoint to this racial tension," curator Heydt termed the project in the exhibit catalog.

Woodruff was well suited for the muralist's role. After studying at Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, where he mastered landscape painting, he spent four years immersed in the art and political scenes of Paris. He drew inspiration from the post-Impressionist and Cubist styles of Cezanne and Picasso and mingled with American literati and artists. Alain Locke, considered the father of the Harlem Renaissance, encouraged Woodruff and other young black artists to turn to the ancestral arts of Africa and to adopt a visual language independent of whites.

By the time he began the Talladega murals, Heydt said, Woodruff was at the "height of his Atlanta period," his subject matter growing to include Atlanta's poverty-stricken neighborhoods. He also had traveled to Mexico in 1936 to study under Diego Rivera, the famed muralist also known for his social conscience.

Woodruff quickly educated himself on the Amistad incident, traveling to New Haven, Conn., where the mutineers had been imprisoned. The artist examined written and visual accounts at the New Haven Historical Society and the Yale University libraries, including everything from the design of 19th century ships to a series of 22 historic graphite drawings of the accused by William H. Townsend.

While acknowledging Woodruff's valuable role as a history teller, Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey views the Amistad trilogy as powerful for another reason.

"He tells painful stories in a beautiful, painterly way," said Bailey from San Antonio, Texas, where he has just opened his own High Museum-organized touring exhibit, ‘Memory as Medicine." "I've seen plenty of art of painful subject matter where you get the subject but you're not turned on by the work. I think It's very difficult to talk about those kinds of things and not be so literal and at the same time deal with beauty, which is what Hale Woodruff did."

Exhibit preview

“Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals from Talladega College”

Saturday-Sept. 2. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $18; $15, students, seniors; $11, ages 6-17; free, 5 and younger. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4200, www.high.org.

-- Three photography exhibits also open Saturday at the High: "Picturing New York," "Picturing the South" and "Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley."

-- To read about the year-long conservation of Hale Woodruff's murals: http://bit.ly/KlN5yX

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