Talladega College has a long and rich history as an academic institution whose mission is—in addition to the strong academic preparation of its students—to nurture the whole person. Key to its well documented successes is the fact that this small liberal arts college considers the first-hand exposure of its students to the humanities, music and the fine arts as important as their preparation for specific careers. All of its students are grounded in the liberal arts. I am glad to have been one of those students who were surrounded by great art and architecture.
In the mid 1930’s, Talladega College renown African American artist Hale Aspacio Woodruff was commissioned to paint murals, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Amistad Incident, for the dedication of Savery Library. The dedication ceremony took place in 1939. An accomplished artist, Woodruff did not shirk his social responsibilities, and is credited with breeching several barriers to racial equality, especially in the art world. When he accepted the project he was on the faculty at Atlanta University.
Already an artist of considerable ability and reputation, Woodruff had spent a summer studying under Mexico’s world-famous social realist muralist, Diego Rivera. The influence of Rivera’s style can clearly be seen in the murals he painted for Talladega College.
Two decades later, as a young freshman at Talladega College, I was quickly made aware of the importance of both the Hale Woodruff Murals that crowned the lobby of Savery Library and the terrazzo image of the Amistad slave ship imbedded in the floor. All freshmen were, not too subtly, admonished by upperclassmen that stepping on the image of La Amistad would have dire consequences. That image is now encircled with velvet covered rope held waist-high by four shiny brass standards.
Of all of the art that we were exposed to as students at Talladega College, the Savery Library murals by Hale Woodruff were among the most impressive. I was so fascinated by the triptych about the Amistad Incident that I entitled my freshman humanities scrapbook, The Log of the Amistad—l still have it. Although the murals are often referred to as the Amistad Murals, three of the six panels depict the construction of Savery Library, the Underground Rail Road and the first day of class at Talladega College.
Except to occasionally share them with the world, Talladega College without the murals is unimaginable. I consider Savery Library and its Woodruff Murals, to be one of Talladega College’s three great architectural and cultural treasures—along with Historic Swayne Hall and De Forest Chapel, now illuminated by the beautiful stained glass windows of David Driskell. Most Talladega College graduates—‘Degans--believe in a strongly motivating and endearing intangible we call the Talladega College Mystique. While no one, to my knowledge, has ever successfully defined it, we are certain that the Woodruff murals are an indispensable part of the ambience necessary for the Talladega College Mystique to flourish.
The allure and magic of the Woodruff murals are by no means confined to ‘Degans. Those magnificent depictions of actual events in the history of African Americans symbolize the struggle and resolve of all peoples to be free and educated. However, most people also find them appealing simply because they are beautiful, poignant, and powerful works of art.
Another of the Colleges three great treasures, Historic Swayne Hall, provides the perfect approach to Savery Library. As one emerges from the large doors under Swayne’s massive columns, deep shadows suddenly give way to bright sunlight, exposing beautiful Savery Library, where the Hale Woodruff murals hang. Although Savery Library was completed over 70 years later than Swayne Hall, it is none the less historic. And, the walk from the building built by slaves to the one built by free men of color seems like a walk through time. Before entering the library, I often turn and face the majestic columns of Swayne Hall and wonder how it must have been back then. Upon entering the library my questions are answered by the murals.
The murals consist of six panels in two sets of three on opposite walls above the lobby: Three recount the Amistad Incident; more specifically, the Slave Revolt, the Court Room Scene and the Return to Africa. The other three depict the Underground Railroad, the First Day of Class, and the Construction of Savery Library. Admitting my bias, I like everything about the murals--the content, colors, coverage, and consistency of style. Each of the six panels is in effect an historic document in living color. And, it seems as if one could walk—unimpeded by negative space--into the stories being told. Through his deft use of every inch of a canvas, Woodruff exposes the viewer to a number of peripheral but relevant events in a single painting.
After over five decades, I am still in awe of Hale Woodruff’s work. Unfortunately, for me, I only met Hale Woodruff once--in the mid seventies— almost two decades after first seeing his work at Talladega College. While a young biology faculty member at Talladega College, I attended an exhibition of his work at Spelman College. Although they were exciting, Woodruff’s abstracts in black and white were in stark contrast to the colorful and figurative murals in Savery Library. And, there was no hint of the influence of Diego Rivera. As a young scientist—who happened to be an artist—I did not know that Woodruff considered himself an abstract expressionist.
Learning that I was at Talladega College, Mr. Woodruff was anxious to hear about the murals he had painted for the college four decades earlier. During our conversation he revealed that he did not have slides of them; of course, I quickly offered to solve that problem. Upon returning to the College, I did — using an Exacta camera and a step ladder. When he received the slides at his home in New York, Woodruff sent me two linoleum cut prints and a note which said, “...there has always been an affinity between art and science”. Sadly, he died a few years later; but, an important part of his vast legacy—the Savery Library Murals--will endure, for the pleasure and enlightenment of us all.
Arthur L. Bacon, Professor Emeritus of The Natural Sciences and the Humanities at TalladegaCollege. September 15, 2011
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