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If you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s movie Amistad, you already know this story: in 1838, a 25-year-old enslaved Mendeian named Cinque led a successful revolt aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. After killing the ship’s crew, the rebels ordered their surviving captors to turn back to Africa, though the schooner eventually anchored near Long Island. The US government towed the ship to New London, Connecticut, and charged its “cargo” with piracy and murder. Luckily, abolitionists caught wind of the case, and after a few years, the prisoners were freed and sent back home.
In 1938, when Talladega College commissioned Hale Woodruff to paint murals depicting the mutiny, the episode was still conspicuously absent from most history books. The respected African-American artist had never even heard of it, so he took a research trip to Connecticut to learn about it firsthand. In New Haven, he studied a portrait of Cinque by Nathaniel Jocelyn, as well as pencil sketches of the other prisoners by William H. Townsend. He used these likenesses as the basis for three oil paintings that he created for the Alabama institution’s Savery Library. “The Mutiny on the Amistad,” “The Trial of the Amistad Captives,” and “The Repatriation of the Freed Captives” are all vibrantly colored, figurative works that represent the best of social realist painting. As critic Roberta Smith has written, “[They] teach history by making it visually riveting.”
These murals — along with several others Woodruff made depicting pivotal moments for African-American freedom — were taken down in 2011 for conservation in a joint project between Talladega College and the High Museum of Art. They’ve since been touring the country, stopping most recently at the National Museum of American History, where they’re on view in the second-floor gallery that currently houses the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College comes at a notable time: it’s been 150 years since abolition and 50 years since the Voting Rights Act passed. And the National Museum of African American History and Culture is finally getting its own building — a 40,000-square-foot space now under construction next to the Washington Monument. Woodruff, a painter who sought to reinsert the African presence into official American history, would have been proud.
Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College continues at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (14th Street and Constitution Ave, NW, Washington DC) through March 1.