On a moonless night in 1839, just off the coast of Cuba, 53 slaves took up sugar cane machetes against their captors aboard a boat called Amistad.
That mutiny 175 years ago triggered the first civil rights trial in U.S. history. In a courtroom in Connecticut, where slavery was still legal, white abolitionists defended the mutineers and won. When the U.S. government appealed the ruling, former President John Quincy Adams argued for the rebels in front of the Supreme Court, which upheld their acquittal.
The incident had a ripple effect, emboldening anti-slavery activists and leading to the creation of the American Missionary Association, which started anti-slavery churches before the Civil War and helped establish schools for freed slaves after the war.
One of those schools was Talladega College in Alabama. In 1939, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Amistad rebellion, the college hired celebrated painter and art professor Hale Woodruff to create three murals that would bring the tale to life.
Just three years later, Talladega commissioned Woodruff to paint another trio of murals that continues the narrative of the quest for freedom by depicting the Underground Railroad, the first day of registration at Talladega College and construction of the college’s library, where the murals hung.
All six murals, recently cleaned and restored, are on display in “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Director Julián Zugazagoitía, pointing at the largest of the murals — a 21-foot-wide courtroom scene in which a white slave trader points a finger accusingly at the standing, dignified leader of the rebels, Joseph Cinqué — says, “This tells us so much about our history, and yet whether it’s differences in economic circumstances or social class or race, all these issues are very much of our times. These are the issues (Woodruff) brings to the front using the power of an image.”
Diego Rivera’s influence
It was a happy coincidence that the Talladega College murals exhibit overlaps with the Nelson’s “Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” exhibit. (Admission charges apply to the Benton exhibit, but visitors can see it free from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursdays; “Rising Up” is free.)
“Benton is glamour, is Hollywood, but it is also social justice that he is depicting, for instance the injustice of segregation,” Zugazagoitía says, “so the connection of those two is just blatant.”
Another common thread between Woodruff and Benton is the influence of Mexican muralism. Just three years before painting the Amistad murals, Woodruff spent a summer studying with Diego Rivera in Mexico, where he learned the fresco process of painting directly on walls.
Woodruff’s Talladega murals are painted on canvases, but he did use one technique picked up from Rivera: making a large sketch of the mural called a cartoon and transferring the design using a perforated wheel similar to a dressmaker’s.
Stephanie Knappe, the museum’s curator of American art, points to “The Rebellion,” the mural depicting the mutiny.
“Woodruff spent time in Paris and sat at the feet of a number of important artists there, so what we are looking at here is a combination of his Parisian studies, his inspiration from Mexico, and he’s also looking at African masks,” Knappe says.
The story of the Amistad was widely reported and illustrated when it happened but then suppressed after the Civil War, perhaps out of fear of reactions in the South to graphic scenes of blacks attacking whites. Woodruff’s murals are thought to be the first depiction of the incident in the 20th century, Knappe says. His portrayal of the violence is stylized, showing the Africans overpowering their captors with machetes raised but without showing bloodshed.
All six of the murals are layered with detail, evidence of a shift in Woodruff’s thinking from working with Rivera in Mexico, Knappe says. The artist described it as moving from “reporting” a scene to “crafting a narrative.”
As the artist once described “Opening Day at Talladega College,” for example, black students arrive with live animals in crates and sacks of foodstuffs to offer as tuition. A stray dog wanders in the lively scene, and freed slaves sit on the ground next to farm implements and look at books for the first time.
Woodruff, who was born in 1900 in Cairo, Ill., and raised in Nashville by his mother after his father died, studied art at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis and the Art Institute of Chicago. He got his first break in 1926 when he won second place in a national contest by the Harmon Foundation in New York, which promoted art by African-Americans.
More than the $100 cash prize, the award gave Woodruff entree to the heady world of black intellectuals in the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois.
In 1927 Woodruff moved to Paris for four years to study art. The landscapes he painted during that time show influences of post impressionism and cubism. In 1931, he returned to the U.S., accepting an offer to establish an art department at Atlanta University, where he would remain a professor until 1946.
In 1934, Woodruff married Theresa Ada Baker, a teacher at Lincoln High School in Kansas City. The couple had a son, Roy, in 1935. In part because Woodruff was an only child, he developed a close and lifelong bond with his wife’s family, many of whom live in Kansas City.
Woodruff moved to New York in 1947, where he taught art at New York University until he retired in 1968. During the mid-1960s Woodruff helped start Spiral, a collaborative of African-American artists in New York.
Although Woodruff remained in New York until his death in 1980, he visited Kansas City frequently to see family.
Other Woodruff shows
A great-nephew, Shawn Hughes, and his mother, Mamie Hughes, both of Kansas City, were instrumental in helping bring the Talladega murals to Kansas City and in inspiring two concurrent exhibitions in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District. Both exhibits add rich insights into Woodruff’s life and his artistic trajectory before and after the Talladega murals.
“All Hail to Hale/Homecoming: The Hale Woodruff Family Collection” at the American Jazz Museum showcases 25 artworks by Woodruff that he gave to family members. The works, on loan from the family, include oil paintings, linocut prints and illustrated poems. The most striking display is the entire front of a lakefront cottage the Hughes family owned at Lake Placid, a black resort created in the mid-1930s in the Missouri Ozarks.
Woodruff visited the cottage and painted its front door window and mounted a poem by his father-in-law, John Barker, to the front wall, says Sonie Ruffin, the museum’s curator.
Another piece in the exhibit is an oil painting called “Spring Evening” signed by both Woodruff and Barker.
“That tells you the relationship he had with his father-in-law. What we have at the American Jazz Museum is a story of a man’s life and his love and respect for his wife’s family,” Ruffin says.
Hughes introduced Ruffin to members of Woodruff’s family here and in Denver. Besides works of art, some family members produced photographs and private papers of the artist, including an invitation to the White House from President Lyndon B. Johnson, that can be seen at “All Hail to Hale: The Barker Hughes Family Personal Papers of Hale Woodruff,” at the Black Archives of Mid-America.
In addition to the social themes played out in the Talladega series, the style of Woodruff’s murals is also enjoying a resurgence, Zugazagoitía says.
“The modernist movement of abstraction obliterated a little bit the understanding and relevance (of muralism), and that’s why it feels like we are rediscovering all of this at a time when we need to know these lessons of the past to understand our present.”
Hale Woodruff exhibits
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak, nelson-atkins.org
“Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,” through Jan. 10, free
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Friday
American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th, americanjazzmuseum.org
“All Hail to Hale/Homecoming: The Hale Woodruff Family Collection,” through Feb. 20, free
9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday
Black Archives of Mid-America, 1722 E. 17th Terrace, blackarchives.org
“All Hail to Hale: The Barker Hughes Family Personal Papers of Hale Woodruff,” through Jan. 10, free
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
“Rising Up: Spoken Word,” Glenn North, education director at Black Archives of Mid-America and poets José Faus, Natasha Ria El-Scari and Sheri “Purpose” Hall respond to the Amistad murals, 6 p.m. Oct. 23, Atkins Auditorium
“Rising Up: Clips and Conversation,” Delia C. Gillis from University of Central Missouri, and Adrienne Walker Hoard from the University of Missouri-Kansas City discuss myths and realities surrounding the Amistad court case in the murals and the film, 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13, Atkins Auditorium
Screening of “Amistad,” which was directed by Steven Spielberg, 2 p.m. Nov. 22 at Gem Theater, 1615 E. 18th St., free, register at blackarchives.org
“American Treasures: Hale Woodruff and the Talladega Murals,” David Driskell from the University of Maryland, Stephanie Heydt and Phillip Verre of the High Museum in Atlanta discuss the conservation and exhibition of the murals, 6 p.m. Dec. 3, Atkins Auditorium