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January 29, 2015

Lesson plan: Six murals tell the story of La Amistad and the African slave trade

On a moonless night in July 1839, several enslaved Africans unshackled themselves and crept up to the deck of La Amistad where they attacked and killed all but two of their captors. The men, women and children had been taken from modern day Sierra Leone in Africa and were headed to the Americas to be sold as slaves.

Although the international importation of slaves had been outlawed decades earlier, there was still a high demand for slaves in places like the United States. In the process of trying to sail the ship back to Africa, it was intercepted by an American Navel vessel and its prisoners were taken to New London, Connecticut for trial. The case captivated the entire nation.

A century later, famed African American artist Hale Woodruff brought the story to life through his commissioned murals at Talladega College in Alabama. Although the murals have mostly remained in the Savery Library at Talladega, their impact has reached far beyond the college campus.

Use the videos and text below to guide you through the history of La Amistad and Woodruff’s murals. To introduce art history through the murals please refer to the “Introduction to art history – Student guide” handout.

Background – the African slave trade

Video | History Channel | African Slave Trade

(Teachers: Video contains graphic images. Be sure to preview this and all videos before showing to your students.)

The Atlantic slave trade claimed the lives of millions of Africans during the journey and resulted in the enslavement of 12 million people from the 16th to 19th centuries. Although the U.S. banned the international slave trade in 1807, slavery continued until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

The murals: Rising up

Underground Railroad by Hale Woodruff

Underground Railroad by Hale Woodruff

Talladega College was founded in 1867 with the help of the American Missionary Association to meet the educational needs of recently freed slaves. As the oldest historically black college in Alabama, it felt acutely the growing discontent of the early 20th century as African Americans struggled for equal access to quality education, medical care, professional opportunities and safety.

In 1939, nearly 80 years after slavery was abolished, the college commissioned six murals from Hale Woodruff. Eager to use his skills as an artist to create social change, Woodruff painted the nearly-forgotten story of the 1839 slave uprising on the Amistad.

Use the murals below to learn the story of the Amistad. You may want to watch the trailer for the 1997 film Amistad to get started.

1. The Rebellion

The Mutiny on the Amistad

The Mutiny on the Amistad

It was the middle of the night on July 2, 1839 when several enslaved Africans, captured in Sierra Leone, escaped from their chains in the cargo hold of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. Once free and in command of the ship, a man named Joseph Cinque employed the two surviving slavers to chart a course east and back to their African homeland. By day, the captain followed the directions, but at night sailed north and west, hoping to reach land where the law still allowed slavery. After sailing for two months, La Amistad was intercepted by a U.S. Navel ship which took everyone on the ship captive and brought them to New London, Connecticut to be tried for their crimes.

What do you see in the mural above? Describe what happened.

2. The Trial

The Trial of the Amistad Captives

The Trial of the Amistad Captives

Although the United States had outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, slavery was still perfectly legal until it was abolished in 1865. This made the trial of the captives of La Amistad particularly compelling to abolitionists and slave owners alike.

Early on, the Spanish slavers who had survived the mutiny were released as free men, but the fate of the enslaved Africans was much more complicated in the eyes of the court. The entire nation was captivated by the case and watched it progress, from the humble courtroom in New London to the halls of the Supreme Court where former president John Quincy Adams argued on behalf of the captives. On March 1941, the Supreme Court declared the Africans free, reasoning that since the international slave trade was illegal, the men were legally free under the laws of the United States.

Look carefully at the image above. Who would you say are the most important figures in the room? How do you know? 

3. Repatriation

The Repatriation of the Freed Captives

The Repatriation of the Freed Captives

Through the support of abolitionists who raised funds to help the survivors return to their home, the men made their way back to Sierra Leone. The image above shows the repatriated men on the shores of Africa.

What impact do you imagine the case had on abolitionists in the United States? Does it surprise you to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court came to the decision it did while slavery was still legal in the U.S.? How might the story have been inspiring to African Americans a century later?

The artist 

Video | PBS NewsHour | African captives rise up against slavery in Talladega murals

The NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff looks at the personal history of Hale Woodruff, the artist behind the Talladega murals.

Special thanks to James A. Gordon and Jackie Serwer of the Smithsonian Institution for their generous support on this project.

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