In 1938 Atlanta-based artist Hale Woodruff was commissioned to paint a series of murals for Talladega College, Alabama, one of the first colleges established for blacks in the United States. Installed in the institution’s newly constructed Savery Library, the six murals portray noteworthy events in the rise of blacks from slavery to freedom. Though he painted the murals for a local audience of students and faculty, Woodruff intended their impact to reach beyond Talladega’s campus. They attracted national attention.
In 2011 a team of conservators and art handlers removed Woodruff’s six murals from the walls of the library. The crew assembled scaffolding to reach the murals, which were installed at nine feet high on facing sides of the library’s entrance hall. Originally painted on canvas by Woodruff in his Spelman College studio in Atlanta, the murals were gently pried from the walls to which they had been directly affixed. Areas of flaking were stabilized before transit with tissue applied using easily soluble materials.
The conservation process addressed the effects of aging on the works. The Talladega murals have been left undisturbed in the lobby of Savery Library for more than seventy years—and with good fortune. Without direct exposure to the harmful effects of sunlight, the vibrant colors of Woodruff’s original palette have remained intact. Nevertheless, a good cleaning and the addition of a support or backing have ensured that the murals will be enjoyed by future generations of Talladegans.
Today the murals remain symbols of the centuries-long struggle for civil rights. This project, a collaboration between the High Museum of Art and Talladega College, conserves these works and presents them to a national audience for the first time.