In 1938 Alabama’s Talladega College commissioned acclaimed African American artist Hale Woodruff to paint six large-scale murals portraying the Amistad mutiny and its aftermath, as well as the founding of Talladega College. The High Museum partnered with Talladega College on the removal, extensive conservation treatment, and multi-city tour of the mural series.
The Mutiny on the Amistad
The Trial of the Amistad Captives
The Repatriation of the Freed Captives
The Underground Railroad
Opening Day at Talladega College
The Building of Savery Library
In 1938 Atlanta-based artist Hale Woodruff was commissioned to paint a series of murals for Talladega College, Alabama, one of the first colleges established for blacks in the United States. Installed in the institution’s newly constructed Savery Library, the six murals portray noteworthy events in the rise of blacks from slavery to freedom. Though he painted the murals for a local audience of students and faculty, Woodruff intended their impact to reach beyond Talladega’s campus.
They attracted national attention. Today the murals remain symbols of the centuries-long struggle for civil rights. This project, a collaboration between the High Museum of Art and Talladega College, conserves these works and presents them to a national audience for the first time.
Hale Aspacio Woodruff was born in Cairo, Illinois, and raised in Tennessee. In 1927, after formal art study in the United States, Woodruff moved to Paris. There he trained at the city’s progressive art academies, admired Old Master paintings, and studied the work of the avant-garde, and met with African American expatriates, including Henry Ossawa Tanner. He began collecting African art and, after seeing works by Picasso and other modernists, started to incorporate African imagery into his paintings.
In addition to his distinguished career as a painter, Woodruff was also known for his contributions as an educator. In 1931 he returned from France to establish the first art school for African Americans in the Southeast at Atlanta University. He taught students at AU, Spelman College, and Clark University as well as high school and grade school children around Atlanta. In 1938 he also began teaching classes in art regularly at Talladega College.
In 1946 he became a teacher at New York University, where he taught art for more than twenty years until his retirement in 1968. During the mid-1960s Woodruff and fellow artist Romare Bearden were instrumental in starting the Spiral Group, a collaboration of African American artists working in New York.
The conservation process addressed the effects of aging on the works. The Talladega murals have been left undisturbed in the lobby of Savery Library for more than seventy years – and with good fortune. Without direct exposure to the harmful effects of sunlight, the vibrant colors of Woodruff’s original palette have remained intact. Nevertheless, a good cleaning and the addition of a support or backing have ensured that the murals will be enjoyed by future generations of Talladegans.
In 2011 a team of conservators and art handlers removed Woodruff’s six murals from the walls of the library. The crew assembled scaffolding to reach the murals, which were installed at nine feet high on facing sides of the library’s entrance hall. Originally painted on canvas by Woodruff in his Spelman College studio in Atlanta, the murals were gently pried from the walls to which they had been directly affixed. Areas of flaking were stabilized before transit with tissue applied using easily soluble materials.
October 6, 2012 – February 28, 2013: African American Museum, Dallas
March 23 – June 16, 2013:Chicago Cultural Center
July 20 – October 13, 2013: 80WSE Gallery at NYU Steinhardt May 16 – September 14, 2014: New Orleans Museum of Art
November 7, 2014 – March 1, 2015: National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institution
June 13 – September 6, 2015: Birmingham Museum of Art
September 25, 2015 – January 10, 2016: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art