The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad Credit: Peter Harholdt

In 1938, Talladega College commissioned the Harlem Renaissance artist Hale Aspacio Woodruff to paint six murals to hang in a campus library. Three tell the story of the slave ship Amistad: an onboard mutiny, the trial of the captives, and their eventual return to Africa. Three more depict the Underground Railroad; the first day of student registration at Talladega, one of the country’s first all-black colleges, in Alabama in 1867; and the building of Savery Library, the eventual home of Woodruff’s work, in 1937.

Woodruff’s vibrant, large-scale murals were influenced by American regionalist style, a Mexican sojourn during which he apprenticed to Diego Rivera, and the cubism he studied in Paris. He returned from France in 1931 to chair the first art department for African-American students at Atlanta University; also in the 30s, Woodruff, who was born in Cairo, Illinois, painted murals for the Works Progress Administration. He went on to teach at Spelman College, Clark University, and at Talladega before joining the art faculty of New York University, where he taught until his retirement.

In 2011, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art collaborated with Talladega College on an extensive conservation project to prepare the murals for a multicity tour, removing them from Savery Library for the first time. At the Chicago Cultural Center they’ll hang alongside other, smaller paintings and prints from throughout Woodruff’s career.