BY HOLLY HABER
wirling with color, movement, and
historic narrative, Rising Up: Hale
Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College
at the African American Museum
presents a rare opportunity to see six dramatic
canvases that have been cloistered at Talladega
in Alabama for more than 70 years.
Three of the large-scale paintings document the 1839 Amistad slave ship revolt, trial,
and repatriation, offering a visual account of
the nation’s first civil rights case. The second cycle depicts the Underground Railroad;
opening day of Talladega College, established
in 1867 as one of the nation’s first black liberal
arts colleges; and the building of Talladega’s
Savery Library in 1939, for which all six murals
The paintings, which had been tacked high
overhead on the walls of Savery Library, were
painstakingly restored to full vibrancy in preparation for a three-year national tour that began at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in June
and continues to six more venues through
2015. The African American Museum in Dallas hosts them through Feb. 28.
Dr. Maxwell L. Anderson, the Eugene McDermott director of the Dallas Museum of
Art, was actually the first to book the exhibit in
his former role as director of the Indianapolis
Museum of Art, which has since withdrawn
from the tour.
“Hale Woodruff was a distinguished Amer-
ican artist who captured the struggles of Af-
rican Americans on an epic scale, with murals
such as the Amistad Mutiny murals of 1938,”
Anderson notes. “He was a role model for
younger aspiring artists throughout the United
States, and Dallas is fortunate to have the op-
portunity to show among the best examples of
The exhibit also presents Woodruff land-
scapes and stark woodcuts of lynchings, pov-
erty, and black social life. But the famous mu-
rals, which demonstrate Woodruff’s mastery
of color, form, and storytelling, are the center-
piece—each an imposing six feet high and 10
to 20 feet long.
Woodruff was one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance of the late 1920s and early
1930s. Born in 1900, he aspired to be an artist
from his youth in Tennessee, studying in Paris
for four years as well as in Mexico City with Diego Rivera.
Talladega College president Rev. Buell G.
Gallagher commissioned him to create the
murals for the opening of Savery Library in
1939—exactly 100 years after the rebellion on
the slave ship Amistad. Racial tension and vio-
lence blighted 1930s Alabama, and Gallagher,
one of the few whites to lead a black college,
hoped the murals would not only commemorate black courage but also illustrate interracial
cooperation and progress.
“It was a lesson in partnership,” says Dr.
Harry Robinson, president and chief execu-
tive officer of the African American Museum.
“In spite of the rigid segregation that was go-
ing on in Alabama at that time, the building of
that school and that library was an interracial
The Amistad trial and repatriation murals
depict white abolitionists who supported the
abducted Africans in their quest for freedom,
“It was the American group that later became the American Missionary Association