African captives rise up against slavery in Talladega murals

February 26, 2015 at 6:10 PM EDT
In 1938, the historically black Talladega College commissioned artist Hale Woodruff to create a series of paintings telling the story of the Amistad, when 53 Africans revolted on a Spanish ship carrying them to slavery one century earlier. A traveling exhibition organized by the High Museum in Atlanta showcases the Talladega murals, now on view at the Smithsonian. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: A national tour of paintings by African-American artist Hale Woodruff lands in Washington, telling a powerful story of enslavement, rebellion and repatriation.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Though rooted in a dark chapter of American history, the paintings are rendered in brilliant colors, and together convey a story of triumph over one of the worst forms of adversity.

JACQUELYN SERWER, Chief Curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture Museum: These men had been captured, as it turned out, illegally, had been taken against their will to Cuba, where they were destined to be enslaved on sugar plantations, which was the worst fate you could have.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Rising Up,” an exhibition organized by the High Museum in Atlanta and now at the Smithsonian in Washington, showcases what are known as the Talladega Murals. They were commissioned in 1938 by Talladega College in Alabama, one of the early historically black colleges founded after the Civil War, to tell the story of the Amistad, when 53 Africans revolted on a Spanish ship carrying them to slavery in the Americas in 1839.

I spoke with Jacquelyn Serwer, the chief curator of the soon-to-open African-American History and Culture Museum.

JACQUELYN SERWER: You see these are people who have taken control, who have decided what has to happen, and they’re willing to risk their lives to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a story made familiar by the 1997 Steven Spielberg film “Amistad.”

ACTOR: Yes, east, to the sun.

ACTOR: I understand. You can trust me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The murals show the violent rebellion on the Spanish ship, in which the Africans, led by a man called Cinque, broke free, killed the captain and cook, and took control.

A second panel shows their first trial in the U.S., where, after 63 days at sea attempting to return to Africa, they had landed. They were tried in Connecticut for murder in a case eventually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, where they were defended by former President John Quincy Adams.

Finally, a third panel shows their return to Africa following their exoneration. The man behind the murals was Hale Woodruff, an African-American painter who, in 1926, bought a one-way ticket to Paris. Four years later, upon his return to the U.S., Woodruff founded the Art Department at Atlanta University and then studied under Mexican painter Diego Rivera, who was known for his murals.

JACQUELYN SERWER: He had seen the cubism and Picasso and Matisse and all the work that was going on, the interest in African art there. And so he was very much up to date and imbued with the new ideas associated with modern art. And he was very political. And so he figured that Rivera was the person he needed to see, and Rivera was very much a mentor for him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Woodruff’s work in the 1930s was inspired by the difficult life of Southern blacks during the Great Depression. He showed scenes of poverty and exploitation and, in a series of block prints, he portrayed lynchings, as in this work titled “By Parties Unknown.”

JACQUELYN SERWER: Remember, this was 1938, 1939. This was not the happiest time in the United States for African-Americans. There were great problems still in the South, lynchings and problems with segregation and so on.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1938, Talladega College asked Woodruff to commemorate the stories of the Amistad and of the founding of the college in a series of murals.

JACQUELYN SERWER: To have, for once, a triumphant story where the underdogs, who are black men, are able to take control of their lives and actually set their own destiny was something that people found thrilling, and I think probably some other people found quite threatening.

JEFFREY BROWN: The murals will be on display in Washington until March 1, when they will head to Alabama and then Kansas City, Missouri, before returning to Talladega College next year to reside in a new permanent home.

From the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.