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February 28, 2015

Amistad slave rebellion lives on through Talladega murals


A series of paintings by African-American artist Hale Woodruff gives a new view to the story of a slave rebellion.

In 1839, a group of 53 Africans, kidnapped by Spanish slave traders in Sierra Leone, were on their way to become slaves on American plantations. They staged a revolt, killing the captain, and took control of the ship, attempting to steer it back to Africa.

After 63 days at sea, the Amistad landed in the U.S. The group was tried for murder in Connecticut and the case made its way to the Supreme Court, where former President John Quincy Adams defended them.

The group was exonerated by the Supreme Court, who ruled in their favor because the international slave trade had been outlawed in 1807.

Nearly 100 years later, Talladega College in Alabama commissioned Woodruff to create the murals. Woodruff, who had studied under famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera, had previously portrayed the plight of Southern blacks during the Great Depression.

The paintings were contentious at the time Woodruff created them, according to Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator of the African-American History and Culture Museum.

“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,” she said.

The murals will be displayed in Alabama and Kansas City, Missouri, and will return to Talladega College next year.

Warm up questions
  1. When did slavery in the United States end?
  2. What was the Amistad rebellion?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why was the group freed? How would the outcome have been different if they had been kidnapped and sold into slavery within the U.S.?
  2. What were race relations in the U.S. like in 1938? How could this have affected the way people discussed the murals?
  3. How do artists help tell the story and influence the perception of historical events?
  4. Which artists are doing this today?

For more on the Talladega murals, check out our lesson plan for classes.

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