Hale Woodruff: The Amistad Murals

Hale Woodruff, The Amistad Murals, collection of Savery Library, Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama. Brooklyn Rail.

In 1933 and 1934, Hale Woodruff and his student Wilmer Jennings were selected to accomplish their first mural at a junior high school in Atlanta as part of the federal government’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). The project frustrated Woodruff, who was unfulfilled by the staid imagery and the bureaucracy of the banks, courthouses, hospitals, and libraries that these murals were often sited within. He wanted to inspire, challenge, and paint truly radical murals that would raise awareness and work towards social change. He first looked towards Mexico. In the summer of 1936, Woodruff secured a fellowship from Columbia University to study fresco painting in Mexico under the mentorship of Diego Rivera. From Rivera, he took not only technique but also a philosophy about heroes and daring narratives, about history and heritage. Rivera’s murals were monuments that belonged to the people. Two years later, after accepting a commission from Talladega College, Woodruff had his opportunity to paint an epic tale of oppression, resistance, survival, and liberation.  

Despite the PWAP hiring 3,749 artists, few African American social realist muralists were allowed to position their work in prominent public settings. However, in the 1930s and 1940s, historically Black colleges and universities became critical sources of institutional support and vital patronage that proved time and again to be transformative. These institutions often existed beyond the establishment’s authority, allowing these artists to use undeniable visuals to clarify their vision of the American experience.

Since the start, Talladega College has been a powerful place. It began when three formerly enslaved people, William Savery, Ambrose Headen, and Thomas Tarrant, met at a convention of newly freedmen in Mobile, Alabama. Together they penned a shared declaration: “We regard the education of our children and youths as vital to the preservation of our liberties…” When Talladega’s President selected the commission’s theme to create these works, Woodruff had never heard of the Amistad. It was not part of the American consciousness. Woodruff saw this as an opportunity to resurrect the past, to connect it to the present. Over six canvases, completed in two cycles, there was the opportunity to illustrate the struggle for freedom, education, and the climb from slavery toward equality. 

Woodruff began the Amistad murals series with an extraordinary setting at sea. The Mutiny on the Amistad (1939) is a chaotic tapestry. We are presented with a moment of survival by any means necessary. Five of the Africans have overcome their oppressors, despite having guns and rifles; the five white men aboard were no match for the strength and sugar cane knives of the fifty-three enslaved people. The whites are old and bearded, frail as they sob and pray for the very mercy they are unwilling to give when it matters the most. Memorialized mid-mutiny, this painting is a sum of a thousand details clapping like thunder. And as far as the eye can see, an angry sea swells, the chop an all too perfect blue.

In the final painting, we see the most significant influence of Rivera. After all the struggle, The Building of Savery Library (1942), depicts a frenzied scene of a multiracial workforce building towards a common goal. Gone is the slave ship, replaced by a library still under construction, education as a forever work-in-progress. One man in a suit stands tall above the muscular carpenters, plumbers, and masons. This is Joseph Fletcher, a 1901 Talladega alumnus, superintendent of buildings and grounds on campus, and the construction chief of the new library. This is the complex southern industrial machine built on the backs of men. When the Amistad touched down on our shores, there were laws prohibiting whites from teaching enslaved people to read or write (punishable by fines and floggings). Enslaved people initially constructed the first building on Talladega College’s campus as a prep school for young white men. The final piece in the cycle represents the possibility of crossing lines to work together towards cultural enfranchisement. 

The murals were initially commissioned to hang overhead, near the ceiling in the lobby of the then-new Savery Library. They stayed there, undisturbed for more than seventy years before an appraisal revealed the need for extensive conservation. After a five-year restoration project in collaboration with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and a three-year, eight-city tour, they returned to their spiritual home in Alabama in a new permanent home, the Dr. William R. Harvey Museum of Art. These murals were a triumph not only for Woodruff but also for historically Black colleges and their importance in art history. Seeing the murals here, putting Black history front and center in a public space, nothing else looks like this; nothing else feels like this. On this small campus, in this small town, Woodruff built a world. A world with a profound faith in the power of painting the truth.