The scene is a packed Connecticut courtroom in 1840. A trial is underway for the African slaves who seized the slave ship Amistad and killed and beheaded its captain. At center stage stands their leader, Cinque.
But in the background of the painting a man watching from the gallery seems out of place. He rests his face on his right hand, and he wears what looks like a 20th-century shirt in this 19th-century scene.
He is the African American artist, Hale Woodruff, who painted the mural and tiny self portrait in 1939, a century after the Amistad uprising, but at a time when racial oppression in the United States was still harsh.
Now, 175 years after the revolt and amid modern racial tensions, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has Woodruff’s dramatic trial mural on display at the National Museum of American History.
It is one of three Woodruff works depicting the Amistad incident that the artist painted for Talladega College, a historically black institution in Talladega, Ala. The large murals were recently refurbished and are touring the country.
The other two murals show the uprising, with the Africans attacking the Amistad crew, and the captives returning to Africa after their acquittal of murder.
They are among a series of Woodruff’s striking history murals and other works on display at the American history museum through March 1. The African American history museum, currently under construction, is scheduled to open in 2016.
The Amistad incident is one of the most dramatic of the Atlantic slave trade. On July 2, 1839, dozens of suffering slaves bound for the deadly sugar fields of Cuba slipped out of their chains and took over the vessel.
They killed then decapitated the captain, killed one member of the crew and forced the others to flee, according to historian Marcus Rediker’s account of the uprising.
They hoped,with the help of two slave-owner hostages, to sail home to Africa.
But they were tricked by the hostages, blundered onto the shores of Long Island and were captured by the U.S. Navy.
During a series of sensational trials and with the aid of former President John Quincy Adams, they successfully argued that they had been enslaved illegally in Africa and were able to go home in 1842.
The incident is remarkable, experts say, because of the boldness and fortitude of the Africans, the support they got from the media and the sympathy of many white Americans at the height of the nation’s slave-holding culture.
In 1939, Talladega College wanted to honor the Amistad Africans because the school was founded in 1867 with the help of the American Missionary Association, an abolitionist group that grew up in the wake of the case.
The school also sought to mark the uprising’s 100th anniversary.
In 1839, the Africans were “this huge cause celebre,” said Jacquelyn Days Serwer, chief curator at the African American museum. “People came to see them in jail. People, abolitionists especially, came to teach them English and to teach them to read and write.”
“They became incredibly famous,” she said.
But by 1938 when the college asked Woodruff to paint the murals for its new library, most of the fame had been forgotten, according to the exhibit catalogue.
Woodruff, an accomplished artist who had studied in Paris, later said he had never heard of the Amistad. After the Civil War and the grim years for blacks that followed, the story had vanished from the history books.
But Woodruff was drawn to African American history. “I somehow always come back to the so-called black image,” he said years later. And when the college asked him to paint the murals — on very short notice, Serwer said — he accepted.
“Woodruff saw the potential to reach . . . a national audience with a dynamic rendering of black resistance,” wrote Stephanie Mayer Heydt, of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, in a catalogue essay. (The High museum helped restore the murals and organized the tour.)
Woodruff was then in his late 30s. He was born in Cairo, Ill., but raised in Nashville. His mother, a widow, had a knack for drawing. As an only child, he would pass the time sketching, he said in a 1968 interview.
He attended art school, drew newspaper cartoons and studied in Paris and in Mexico with the famous muralist Diego Rivera. At the time of the Amistad commission, he was painting and teaching at Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University.
His murals would be “the first visual representation of the Amistad to appear in the 20th century,” Heydt wrote.
But racial tensions were boiling in the 1930s.
“It was, writ large, a very difficult time for African Americans,” said Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the African American history museum’s deputy director. “Lynching was still . . . commonplace. Segregation was the law of the land.”
In 1933, six local white men armed with machine guns temporarily took over the Talladega campus, according to the catalogue. And the infamous Scottsboro case, in which nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women, unfolded 100 miles to the north.
Amid all that, historically black schools like Talladega were “havens of knowledge and exploration,” Conwill said.
When Woodruff began to research the Amistad case, he had a lot of homework to do and not much time, Serwer said.
Painting the murals was “a tour de force,” she said. “Just getting them done. The scale, and detail, and the history he had to do.”
Woodruff traveled to Connecticut and studied drawings and paintings of the Africans that had been done during their stay in the United States.
A portrait of Cinque had been painted around 1840, and 22 courtroom-style sketches had been done by a 17-year-0ld New Haven artist named William H. Townsend.
Woodruff drew on these to populate his murals, and he added himself to the court scene — looking pensive as if he had been on hand observing 100 years before.
“He’s very intent on these characters that he himself has re-created,” Serwer said.
There are dozens of figures in the three Amistad murals — the mutiny, the trial and the return — including two children who were among the African captives. All are in colorful 19th-century garb, a subject Woodruff had researched.
There is no blood in the mutiny mural, Conwill noted, only flashing weapons, struggling figures and guns.
“This is the rarest of moments in 19th-century history,” she said. “The triumph of Africans over their enslavement that is a success.” Many such uprisings ended in failure.
In 1935, Woodruff had created a bleaker image of the African American struggle, which is also in the exhibit.
It was a “linocut,” for print-making, that depicted a lynching.
A black-and-white print made from the linocut shows a black man standing in the back of a horse-drawn wagon. His hands are tied behind his back. A noose around his neck hangs from a tree.
At the front of the wagon, the driver holds a stick aloft, just before he strikes the horse.
Woodruff titled the piece “Giddap.”