Hale Woodruff's Talladega College murals of the Amistad mutiny embark on a national tour

Four-year partnership between the college and the High Museum results in Rising Up

In 1939, African-American artist and Atlanta University professor Hale Woodruff was making weekly trips from Atlanta to Talladega College in Alabama to teach a seminar and work on some murals for the school. Talladega president Buell Gordon Gallagher had commissioned the series of paintings to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Amistad mutiny, the successful 19th century slave ship rebellion. Given the racial climate of the South at the time, Woodruff's commute was a daring undertaking.

"It's 1939, and incidents of lynching had increased during the '30s. The Scottsboro Boys trial is flared up and ongoing, and he's traveling weekly down to Talladega," says Stephanie Heydt, curator of American art at the High Museum. "And what blows my mind is, he's traveling through the rural South every week by car, back-and-forth, and he's just going for it."

When current Talladega College president Billy Hawkins considers the risks the artist was taking, his voice trails off: "Had someone known at the time, here's someone painting about this revolt that the slaves were successful in winning ... ."

Undoubtedly, Woodruff possessed a certain fearlessness as an artist and educator. That boldness also showed itself in the optimism found in much of his work — and in the Talladega murals in particular.

"If you track all six murals, it goes from this uprising and revolt of blacks versus whites battle to the death and it ends with blacks and whites working together to build Savery Library [at Talladega College], which is an opportunity for a community of blacks and whites to pursue education and opportunity," Heydt says. "It's more like looking forward toward a better time and not necessarily commenting on the present, which he was actually experiencing."

Heydt is the curator of Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College, the culmination of a four-year collaboration between the High Museum and Talladega College to conserve and exhibit Woodruff's seminal works. Six large-scale paintings comprise the series: three from 1939 detailing the Amistad captives' rebellion, trial, and repatriation, and three more completed in 1942 depicting scenes of the Underground Railroad and the founding and construction of Talladega College in 1867. For more than 70 years, the murals hung nailed to the interior walls of Savery Library. Now they have been taken down, restored, and readied for a four-year national tour.

When Hawkins became college president in 2008, he resurrected a long-buried conversation about a partnership with the High that would help conserve and exhibit the murals, recently estimated to be worth $40 million. ("The insurance company wanted us to put a 24-hour armed guard on the building," he says.)

His efforts were met with some resistance. "You have to understand, these murals being in that library over 70 years, there were some folks that had questions, even the alumni. I had to convince a lot of folks to trust me on this," Hawkins says. "For us, it's about the college and owning these murals and Talladega sharing these murals with the world."

Woodruff was born in Cairo, Ill., in 1900 but grew up in Tennessee as the only child of a single mother. He attended Indianapolis' Herron School of Art and began his career as a political cartoonist for the Indianapolis Ledger. A socially and politically engaged artist, Woodruff spent time in Lost Generation-era Paris during the late '20s and studied under famed muralist Diego Rivera in Mexico in 1936. He returned to the South to teach at Atlanta University where he ran the university's art department until the mid-'40s.

"Many painters I know are painters first and teachers second. But I think on the other hand my teaching has been rewarding. Very much so," Woodruff told the Smithsonian Institute in a 1968 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art.

In that tension between the teaching life and the painting life, Woodruff yielded slightly to the former. "That's another reason the Talladega murals were so important to him, they gave him an opportunity to return very full force to his own expression," Heydt says.

The influence of Rivera's bold aesthetic is immediately apparent in the murals. All six are drenched in color and packed with characters and action. In the first mural, "The Mutiny on the Amistad," multiple battles simultaneously play out on the ship's swaying deck. With machetes raised, the rebels seize their captors and the combatants tumble over each other between bails of sugarcane. The folds of the fabric on their garments ripple like agitated pools of water.

"When he painted these murals in Talladega with this very powerful statement about the Amistad mutiny, he presents it in a way that's uplifting as opposed to aggressive or threatening. He wants people to be inspired by it rather than repelled," Heydt says.

In the murals' full narrative, Woodruff focused on a progressive outlook for the future of African-Americans and race relations even if it hadn't been fully realized at the time. Hawkins points to the 1942 set of murals as proof. They include a clear depiction of the Underground Railroad, as well as the actual founding of Talladega College — showing the first day of school, students paying tuition by chicken, pigs and grain, and reading books, already striving for the opportunity to learn.

The fifth mural, "Opening Day at Talladega College," seems to resonate with the school president the most. Its focus on feeding young minds echoes Woodruff's lifelong work as a teacher and mentor: "I think that mural, probably more than any of them really, says so much in terms of the beginning of learning for African Americans at higher education institutions in the country."