Faculty Resource Network

An academic partnership devoted to faculty development. Now in our fourth decade, we remain committed to this partnership, and to fostering connection, collaboration, and collegiality among our members.

Rising Up

Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College

A Symposium

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

A one-day symposium focusing on the historical and artistic significance of Hale Woodruff’s work, including the Talladega Murals, took place at New York University on Friday, October 4, 2013, in conjunction with the exhibition that was displayed at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery from July 20-October 13, 2013. Transcripts from the symposium talks and panels can be accessed at the links below.

Morning Session

Keynote Address: Hale Woodruff and the New Negro Initiative

Hale Woodruff and the New Negro Initiative

Keynote Address Delivered by Edmund Barry Gaither:

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 
Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to share in this series of events honoring the distinguished artist Hale Woodruff here at an institution where he worked and made such a notable contribution. I’m pleased to have known and shared conversations with Hale Woodruff. I feel blessed to have spent my formative years at college looking at the numerous landscapes by Woodruff in Bumstead, Ware, and other halls of Atlanta University, enjoying his early abstract expressionist paintings at Spelman College, and thumbing through the card catalogue in Trevor Arnett Library beneath The Art of the Negro murals that embellished the interior of its cupola.

Born in Cairo, Illinois, in 1900, Woodruff studied at the John Herron School of Art and at the Academy Moderne and the Academy Scandinav in Paris before pursuing a leading role in defining African American art over three quarters of the 20th century. A master of watercolor and oil painting, as well as print making and drawing, he fully engaged the three great imperatives that gave direction to early 20th-century African American art. What were those imperatives? First, there was the desire to rehabilitate the black image from caricature degradation through the creation of a black figurative art tradition that embraced black physiognomy and represented black humanity empathetically. Second, African American artists undertook depicting alternative narratives of black participation in our national story. They painted episodes that had been deleted from the dominant narrative and sometimes they corrected distorted accounts that undervalued black contributions. Black artists were becoming history painters, giving visual expression to themes drawn from their own sociopolitical matrix. Lastly, African American artists were enlisted in reclaiming Africa as part of black identity, as part of its symbolic heritage.

These projects will be familiar to many of you because they are intimately connected to the cultural, political, and artistic explosion known as the New Negro Era. Fueled by the Great Migration and encounters between African Americans and African and Caribbean peoples, the energy of the era impelled artists to create a visual language capable of capturing its intensity, sophistication, swagger, and ambition. In The New Negro, compiled and edited by the great Alaine LeRoy Locke in 1925, artists were urged to perfect their skills and take on a role in the task of elevating a people only a few generations out of slavery and often even fewer years out of the backwardness of the South. W.E.B. Du Bois and others saw artists as duty-bound to become instruments to racial betterment, lending their talent and energy to the building of black institutions.

Many black artists . . . responded by forging a black figurative art free of caricature and degrading distortions. Examples are abundant and may be seen in works from Archibald Motley’s Mending Socks to Augusta Savage’s Gamin, from Charles Alston’s self-portrait to Woodruff’s Red Tam. What these works have in common is an acceptance of black physiognomy, a healthy and unapologetic self-acceptance, and a celebration of ordinary black humanity. As the figurative tradition develops, its sociopolitical possibilities clarify. With the Great Migration advancing, black communities became more assertive of their history. Leaders wishing to impact all levels of their community increasingly employed all levels of visual artists to build unity and combat racism. New organizations appeared creating new instruments, such as Opportunity and CRISIS magazines. Both magazines spotlighted African American artists. For example, William Edouard Scott’s Lead kindly, lightly (1918) became a cover of CRISIS, visualizing the Great Migration, one of the most profound events of the 20th century.

African American art increasingly tended toward history painting and sculpture as Africans identified strongly with the need to emphasize the dignity of look and the beauty of ordinary people. Black Americans now felt an acute need to bring their history forward, forcing revision to prevailing American narratives in which they were often marginalized or absent. The eventual context of Woodruff’s Amistad Mutiny was being pioneered. Leading the way were figures such as William E. Scott, to whom Woodruff was close, and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, who’s Spirit of Emancipation had been completed in 1913 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her composition featured a freed woman and a freed man emerging from a tree trunk representing history. Over their heads, the vestigial limbs of a tree representing the forces of social retardation and racism reach out to impede their progress. Emancipation yoked together . . . black figures, a historical event, and a distinctive point of view.

With the 1930s, murals assumed a tremendous importance in American art. Influenced by the great Mexican muralists, African American muralists such as Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and Charles Alston sought to fully explore the visual and didactic power of the mural by using it to revisualize black people in heroic, historic, and cultural settings. In 1931, Woodruff returned from Europe and went to Atlanta, where he remained until 1946. From this perch, he journeyed to Mexico in 1936 and to New York on a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1943. Woodruff’s stay in Atlanta underscored his appreciation for the necessity of black institutions to address social, economic, cultural, and educational needs of black Americans. Proponents of this view believed that the majority of black Americans would find their best opportunities in the context of historically black institutions. In the arena of higher education, black colleges and universities were vital. Not surprisingly, Woodruff wanted to give the benefits of his professional development to young black people in such centers of learning as Atlanta University. Moreover, at the time, it was mainly in these institutions that artists such as Hale Woodruff and Aaron Douglas could find reasonable employment. While in Atlanta, Woodruff’s art focused on the social and historical realities of the South, but under the deepening influence of the Mexican muralists, Woodruff made the mural his preferred vehicle because of its ability to convey large ideas and to inhabit public spaces.

Over his career, Woodruff painted six mural projects that may be usefully divided into three groups. Group one consists of The Negro in Modern American Life, Shantytown, and Mudhill Row, all completed in 1934. These were early and not entirely successful projects. The Amistad Mutiny, Founding of Talladega College, and Settlement and Development constitute the second group. These works share a strong commitment to the episodic narrative tradition and sometimes integrate texts for clarity. Alone in the last group of the Atlanta University murals is The Art of the Negro, a series characterized by freedom from literal reportage and by an enthusiastic embrace of African-inspired, modernist aesthetics. Woodruff’s first critically important mural, The Amistad Mutiny, was commissioned for Talladega College’s new Savery Library and for the centennial year of the mutiny itself. Commissioned by Buell Gallagher, Talladega’s president, Woodruff conducted the necessary research and painted a mural that he said was in honor of the slaves, their mutiny, and their final freedom. Along the way, he marveled at how so dramatic a story could be absent from textbooks and general histories.

What are the essentials of the story of the Amistad mutiny? In 1838, a slave ship departed the coast of Africa with nearly 500 enslaved Mendeians onboard, headed for Havana, Cuba. Four months later, two-thirds of the Africans arrived in Cuba and were sold to Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez, who undertook to transport them on the ship La Schooner La Amistad. Three days later, the captives revolted, and after many incidents their ship, the Amistad, anchored off Long Island to secure food and provisions and there it was boarded by the U.S. brig Washington, its cargo seized and taken as bounty to New London, Connecticut. Cinque, leader of the revolt, and his followers were arrested. The ship and its cargo, including its captives, were put up for sale as salvage. Montez and Ruiz filed suits, charging that the captives were their property and that Cinque and the other male conspirators should be charged with piracy and murder. Matters grew very complicated.

Fortunately for the Africans, an insider to the process made known to anti-slavery parties that the blacks spoke no Spanish, did not respond to Spanish names, and therefore could not have been slaves in Cuba as claimed. Instead, they were free-born Africans transported to the Americas. Abolitionists, seeing the windfall opportunity presented by this situation, took action. In September of 1839, the Friends of Liberty formed the Amistad Committee to defend the Amistad captives and, with the help of former president John Quincy Adams, their case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1841, Justice Joseph Story ruled that the Mendeians should be freed.

Without a ship or jobs, the captives were forced to rely for shelter and food on their friends at the Amistad Committee. Eventually, the surviving 35 Mendeians returned to Africa, accompanied by missionaries and teachers. To provide continuing help for the retuned Mendeians, the American Missionary Association was founded in 1846. They would later play an important role in the establishment of Atlanta University, Talladega and Tougaloo Colleges, and Straight University, presently Dillard.

Drawing on many sources, historical records and contemporary documents, Woodruff prepared small cartoons showing in detail all aspects of the mural. Actual sources allowed him to make all but four of the 75 faces from actual faces. . . . After completing his research, Woodruff began the actual work of making the mural, assisted by Robert Neal. Of Neal, Woodruff said, “He kept my sketches and equipment in order, he transferred the cartoons to the actual canvas, he posed for all the hands and figured gestures that appeared in the mural. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”

Three dramatic moments were chosen to tell the Amistad story. Panel one shows the mutiny in progress. Woodruff approached the murals in a very direct way. Each panel was organized around a single dramatic event. The viewer is positioned as an observer with a window onto the scene. In the “Mutiny,” for example, the four groups of combatants dominate the shallow space of the ship’s deck. In panel two, he represents the trial at New Haven. The wide center panel, again set in the shallow space inside the New Haven Courthouse, is sharply divided by the bar into the sides of the defense and the prosecutor. On the defense side, Cinque, arms folded, stands resolute and dignified. On the prosecution side are Montez, the ship’s owners and their lawyers, and James Covey, cabin boy turned interpreter. Ruiz, standing and pointing to Cinque, whom he accuses of murder and piracy, dominates that side of the panel. Woodruff, in panel three, represents the return to Africa. On the edge of the African coast, indicated by the palm frond, stands Cinque accompanied by missionaries, teachers, and advisors. Close by, near the returning party’s books and school charter, is Margru. On the opposite side, a grateful Mendeian offers a prayer for their safe return.

The Amistad Mutiny represented Woodruff as a gifted visual storyteller, capable of assimilating a vast amount of data and working it into a coherent statement. Of the murals, W.E.B. Du Bois, writing in Phylon, the Atlanta University journal, exclaimed, “Woodruff dropped his wet brushes, packed his rainbow and his knapsack, and rode . . . into Alabama. There he dreamed upon the walls of Savery Library the thing of color and beauty . . . to keep the memory of Cinque, of the Friendship . . . and the day when he and his men, with their staunch white friends, struck a blow for the freedom of mankind.”

Similar in style and treatment, Woodruff completed a second three-panel mural for the Savery Library at Talladega, titled the Founding of Talladega College. Panel one depicts the episodes associated with the Underground Railroad and the abolitionists who helped launch education for blacks in the post-Civil War South. Panel two shows new students sitting behind the registrar, who, with quill in hand, accepts payment and fees of farm products and livestock. A final panel, with its busy carpenters and masons at work and the architect Joseph Fletcher watching, recalls the building of the library itself. The Talladega murals are Woodruff’s most ambitious and successful undertaking prior to World War II. They assure him a place as a significant American painter of heroic narratives.

In the parallel institutional universe of the early 1900s, black business institutions saw themselves as civic leaders within the African American community. They hoped to positively impact the neighborhoods where they belonged, while accepting “responsibility not only to support but to stimulate all aspects of community development. And what better way to encourage a people to greater accomplishment than through a constant reminder of their splendid heritage.” With this in mind, Golden State Mutual Insurance Company, founded in Los Angeles in 1925, commissioned murals for the lobby of its new home office that opened in August of 1949. Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston were each invited to paint one large historical panel depicting some aspect of blacks in the making of California. The Contribution of the Negro to the Growth of California, as the mural project was called, consisted of two parts: Exploration and Colonization executed by Alston and Settlement and Development painted by Woodruff. Each panel was 16.5 feet by 19 feet and four inches. Both panels were based on research by Miriam Matthews, a librarian, and Titus Alexander, a historian and donor to the Golden State Art Collection. Woodruff approached the production of his panel in fundamentally the same way as the Talladega murals. The language is heroic narrative, figurative and realistic. Yet Settlement and Development presented new challenges. More episodes, many widely separated by time and place, had to be accommodated and the resulting population of figures greatly increased. It became necessary to stack the events shown, thereby sacrificing single-point perspective. Text had to be introduced to help guide the overlapping story elements and a certain sense of crowding ultimately became inescapable.

You will recall that the third project in early 20th-century African American art was the reclamation of Africa as a symbolic legacy. That process began in the 1920s with the designs and murals of another Midwesterner, Aaron Douglass. Douglas, inspired by Egyptian art and deeply committed to themes that interpreted black cultural life, painted murals in New York and at the library at Fisk University in Nashville. In the same period, there were other African American artists exploring African art; however, none may be said to have found a truly integrated embrace of African heritage until Woodruff undertakes The Art of the Negro series in Atlanta in the mid-1940s. Among earlier explorations of this African theme would be Woodruff’s own Card Players, which is heavily inspired by the art of Paul Cezanne and bears obvious cubistic influences. Other cubistic explorations would include Lois Mailou Jones’ Les Fetiches, Malvin Gray Johnson’s Tomb Mask, and some of Palmer Hayden’s cubistically-inflected figurative themes. In the case of Woodruff, Jones, and Palmer, all had studied in Paris and were fully acquainted with cubism and its debt to African art. Cubism, in truth, didn’t have much impact on African American artists, with the possible exception of Sargent Johnson, and then only indirectly, before World War II.

Prior to the 40s, many African American artists might quote an African artifact in an otherwise ordinary composition. Others focused on basically illustrating African topics. An example of this application is seen in Lois Mailou Jones’ cover design for Carter Woodson’s African Heroes and Heroines. But of course the most notable example of this kind of more illustrative approach would be Woodruff’s Amistad. An important exception might be made for Charles Alston’s Magic and Medicine, where the approach is somewhat more complicated. None of these efforts achieves the breakthrough represented by Woodruff’s Art of the Negro, where he merges successfully African formal and thematic elements. The Trevor Arnett murals, completed in 1952, are Woodruff’s finest and most aesthetically resolved murals. They bring together his long interest in African art and his growing association with abstract expressionism. The Art of the Negro murals merit more attention than they have received. Quoting Dean Campbell, “There was nothing in black America comparable to the Atlanta University murals in their effort to place African American art in a larger cultural context.” Indeed, these murals, free from strict historical narrative, allowed Woodruff to take a much broader, metaphorical approach.

The circumstances which led to the commission of the Trevor Arnett murals reach back to 1931, when, at the invitation of President John Hope, Woodruff accepted a post at Atlanta University. Hope, formerly a president at Morehouse College and newly installed as president of Atlanta University, knew of Woodruff from both Paris and Indianapolis. Woodruff was persuaded to come to Atlanta, where he established classes for students at Morehouse, Spelman, and Atlanta University. While teaching in Atlanta and during the period of the completion of the Talladega murals, Woodruff suggested to his president that such a large painting might be desirable for Atlanta University. Years later in 1945, President Rufus Clement offered Woodruff extra pay if he would undertake a mural project for the Trevor Arnett Library and, though Woodruff was to shortly leave Atlanta for a post at New York University, he happily committed to executing the murals.

At the same time, Woodruff’s artistic direction was changing. He was abandoning realism for abstraction and his longstanding interest for Africa was shifting from the illustration of African history to the absorption of motifs from African art. Personally, he was struggling to give his art a more individual accent and to free it from direct social commentary.

The Trevor Arnett murals were to become the sum of these converging concerns. He expressed the idea that “The African artists were his ancestors.” This sentiment aligned well with another quote he made about the murals, in which he said he wanted them to be an inspiration to students who go through the library to see something about the art of their ancestors. The Art of the Negro, as a series of six panels, sought to capture the interplay between African art and other great traditions of the world. Like Alain LeRoy Locke and Dr. Du Bois, Woodruff locates Africa’s art in a dynamic relationship to both Western and non-Western artistic traditions. Though recognizing the brutalization of African people and culture in the colonial era and its aftermath, he nevertheless asserts African rebirth and cultural resurgence as permeating forces in the art of Europe and the Americas. Art of the Negro is thus not so much a history of the continental heritage of black people as it is a praise song for the pervasive impact on form and iconography that African art would have on modern art.

Romare Bearden said of Woodruff that “it was his love for African sculpture which . . . touched his most secret self and which accounts for the unity underlying his painting.” It is certain that that love permeated the Atlanta University murals. Using what Mary Campbell calls “self-contained zones,” devices which first appeared in the 1950 painting Carnival, Woodruff constructs a new kind of meaning in The Art of the Negro. Freed of realistic representation and of historical narrative, he uses abstraction, a value he attributes to the influence of African art, to unify each panel. The net effect is “a wall covered with colorful hieroglyphics . . . with enough figurative elements performing the descriptive actions to give the essential aspects of the history.” The Trevor Arnett murals were Woodruff’s definitive statement integrating the myriad influences affecting modernism and abstraction with a desire to correct the historical record and take credit for major contributions on behalf of his ancestors.

Clearly, Woodruff’s key murals are the Amistad Mutiny, Settlement and Development, and The Art of the Negro. On these works hang his critical place as an American muralist. With respect to the Amistad project, its importance derives from its early place as a heroic, historical mural celebrating a specifically black emancipatory incident. Perhaps one of the most salient observations about Woodruff’s murals is that they all appear in black institutions. This fact underscores the vital role played in American art by historically black institutions and makes more urgent the need to transform American art history towards greater inclusion and truthfulness. The framework of these ideas, values, and ambitions is key to fully appreciating the contribution and direction of Hale Woodruff, especially prior to the 60s. Personally and professionally, he strove to be the best artist and person he could be. He cultivated his creative and expressive powers and attained an extraordinary level of artistic mastery. He lent his talent to teaching, a truly noble undertaking that always threatens to engulf and consume visual artists. He gave his best to improving, broadening, and enriching black institutions, such as Morehouse College, where he taught and mentored Wilmer Jennings. He painted his best and most significant early and mid-career work in black institutions, such as Talladega, Atlanta University, and Golden State Insurance Company. Along the way, he sought to stretch these institutions beyond themselves and to engage them nationally. This was especially the case in the art scene with his establishment of the Atlanta University Annual. The AU Annual, as it was called, was for many years the only Annual serving blacks after the decline of the Harmon Foundation. Despite this fact, Woodruff urged the university to open the Annual to all.

I got a note that I’m not supposed to talk for a long time. Having grown up in the South and being familiar with Baptist tradition, I have decided to abide. So let me just close by saying that Woodruff represents for us the very best of 20th-century African American artists. He enters upon these three great projects, which I mentioned at the beginning, just after they’ve begun to take place and he significantly moves each of them forward. He does so by demanding of himself and by lending himself to teaching, and he accepts a context for a moment that gave him access to young people in whom he saw the future. That is a wonderful tribute to any painter and I think his work stands as a monument to his brilliance as painter, to his commitment as person, to his vision as artist, and also stands a gift to all of us, who even if late coming to his work, still have the full opportunity to appreciate it and honor it. Thank you.

Excerpts from a presentation by Edmund Barry Gaither, The National Center of Afro-American Artists.

Plenary 1

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Modernity and Heritage in Hale Woodruff’s Teaching and Art

Hale Woodruff and the Mysterious Matador

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Modernity and Heritage in Hale Woodruff’s Teaching and Art

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

Hale Woodruff and the Mysterious Matador — Andrea Barnwell Brownlee:

 
Good morning. In 2007, the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art organized the exhibition Hale Woodruff, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, and the Academy. I curated the exhibition with Dr. Amalia Amaki, who was then the curator of the Paul Art Jones Collection of American Art at the University of Delaware. With several objectives, we wanted to mark the museum’s tenth anniversary in a meaningful way. I should share with you all that the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is the only museum in the nation that emphasizes art by women of the African Diaspora. So people always ask me why we would want to honor Hale Woodruff at that time. Of course, as you all know, he was the founder of that department and we also wanted to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the art department at Spelman College. The last time that an exhibition had really been mounted was in 1979 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. So we wanted to organize a project that honored both Hale Woodruff as well as Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, who left Paris and went to Atlanta in 1934 to teach sculpture. We also wanted to conserve all the works that were in the College’s collection. We learned that there were more than twenty works by Woodruff that had been left through his teaching, through various donations; the College has an amazing wealth of works by Hale Woodruff. We also wanted to bring the 14 extant works by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet together for the first time. Before we knew it, we had 60 paintings, 14 sculptures—it was the most amazing thing you’d ever seen. We had loans from various institutions, we got incredible grants from the Getty Foundation, from the Luce Foundation, published a catalogue. It was just really tremendous and had this amazing snowball and this exciting impact.

These are just a few installation shots [shows slides]. One of the things that we were excited about was the opportunity to bring works by Hale Woodruff together that had not been featured together in quite some time. On the near side, closest to me, you’ll see his extraordinary work, The Card Players. We were so excited to rediscover this work, which was in a private collection here in New York actually. It was painted in 1930 and I actually tracked down this work that had not been in view for many moons. It was very exciting for us. Again, you’ll see another painting, which was entitled Big Wind in Georgia. Another installation photograph—here was the signature wall. So when you walked into the exhibition, you had the opportunity to experience Europa and the Bull, Ancestral Memory, and also Africa and the Bull—as Edmund Barry Gaither mentioned Woodruff had this ongoing intrigue and fascination and commitment to Africa, so to highlight that in this exhibition was really meaningful.

. . . The opportunity to bring all of these works together and to see works by these two artists together was impactful and meaningful for several reasons. One of the things we wanted to explore and discover through this project was what was their real association? And we couldn’t believe it—at the end of the day, there was really little contact between Prophet and Woodruff. We had the opportunity to bring these works together. Of course, many of you have seen Congolais—her signature work, which is in collection at the Whitney.

In the back, you’ll see the work that I’m going to talk more extensively about [shows slides]. . . . You’ll notice when you see these installation photographs that this Matador stands out for many reasons—just stands out. We had the opportunity to celebrate the life of Hale Woodruff with a number of people. Richard Long was somebody who championed this project from the very, very beginning. I mentioned to you all that we had the opportunity to bring our works that were in the college’s collection. Four Figurations needed a little conservation, but again, you can certainly see the relationship between Four Figurations as well as the Card Players. And of course, there is his signature work, which is in our art collection, entitled Celestial Gate.

So at the opening of the exhibition, we had the opportunity to dive into many of the works that really had been intriguing us for a really long time. And so the fact that Woodruff had painted a matador wasn’t the most intriguing thing that we learned about his work during this project. Of course, we knew that he had gone to Mexico, but there was something that was really intriguing about this story with the Matador. I should share with you that I got a call when I first got to Spelman in 2001. And the question was, “I was the executive of the Hale Woodruff estate and I sent a painting down there and I want to know the whereabouts of it.” And I had to apologize and say that we didn’t have any records of this painting. He said, “Okay,” and agreed we’d keep in touch. He called me about two years later and we had the same conversation. So I had the opportunity to call him back and tell him a story. The story that I got to share with him was that after a significant amount of time, the work had been located. He couldn’t remember what the subject matter of the work was, he didn’t remember what the date was—he just knew that he had sent it to Spelman College.

So imagine my excitement and my surprise when I received a phone call from Anne Collins Smith, who is a curator of collections. This was of course when cell phones were just starting to become all the rage in terms of everyday usage. And she called me from her cell phone from the building next door on campus, and she said, “Come quick—we have found a delta box.” And I said to her, “A delta box? I don’t understand.” And she said, “You just have to come.” She had been working with Robert Hamilton, who also works in the art department as a lab assistant and they came across this delta—you know those garment bag boxes that while you were traveling, you would put your actual garment bag into a box so that you could protect it so that when it went around the carousel it wouldn’t be damaged.

At the opening, we decided that we were actually going to show this delta box. In this delta box was this painting. It had been in storage in the art department. ET Williams sent it to the president of the college, who then sent it to the art department and that’s where it stayed for many, many years. This was 1984 that it was sent and it was 2003 when it was discovered. It wasn’t always so pretty though and that’s what we found [shows slide]. You can imagine our extraordinary horror, and let me tell you why—you can see on his thigh there’s this awful gash. You can see that the coloring was heavily varnished, filthy, and it . . . prompted a lot of intrigue. We couldn’t figure out what was going on. We wanted to know who this single man was in this really contrived pose with all of the trappings of a bullfighter. He’s wearing a distinctive matador costume complete with a bicorn hat, a dark red silk jacket embroidered with ornate gold and silk, skintight trousers. His right hand on his hip, he’s slinging a cape over his arm, he’s displaying this ruby pinky ring, and he’s revealing his sword.

There’s no signature, but the name Alfonso is painted on the lower right. On the back of the painting, it’s dated 1944-1945. A significant amount of canvas is wrapped around the back . . . and also around the bottom edges. And as a result, his right arm is oddly attenuated and, similarly, the lower edge of the canvas is cut off at the matador’s thighs and therefore does not reveal his stance or the length of the sword. We don’t know why it was cut down, but on the back, the name Charles Moore is on there. Was he the sitter? It also says, “Hale Woodruff NYC mural painter.” Was Charles the one who had commissioned it? Did he collaborate with Woodruff on a mural project? You know, there was a Charles Moore who was the director of the Harvard Museum; there was another Charles Moore who was a commissioner of fine arts, but Charles Moore is really one of those names—there might even be a Charles Moore in this room. It’s just one of those names that is really common.

. . . Like I said, the painting wasn’t always so nice. It had surface grime on it, polyester resin, the upper portions were really thinly painted, and we just really wanted to find out more about this painting—what was the context? Obviously we thought Mexico was a logical reference for this work, but we also knew that this was an example of a work he created just a year before. We should also revisit one of the comments that Edmund Barry Gaither made in terms of his getting a Rosenwald Fellowship and coming to New York: there’s lots of evidence that suggests that by this time he was really getting tired of some of the policies of the segregated South and he missed being in closer contact with artists. There were several things about his life that he was really interested in changing and a part of this was spending some time away from teaching, so the Rosenwald Fellowship allowed him an opportunity to do that.

So we know that he traveled to many campuses throughout the South; we know that he also painted this painting [shows slide]. I was so intrigued when I learned about this painting, which not a lot of people have actually seen. But it suffered a similar fate [as that of the Matador] when there was an incident at Jackson State—it was caught up in a lot of the activity, it was taken off the walls, it was trampled, it was pretty close to becoming destroyed. So that campus went through this conservation, also, of a Woodruff portrait. But at least we know who Paul E. Johnson was in terms of being the president at Jackson State.

Around this time, Woodruff also completed a portrait of Florence Reed, the president emerita of Spelman College. So we know what he was doing around that time, but, again, this Matador was just so very different. We see this palate is a lot closer to Poor Man’s Cotton, but—at the same time—who is this matador?

So at the opening . . . is Mrs. Williams and, again, she hadn’t seen this painting in a long time so she had no idea of the context either. She and ET Williams were really just responsible for distributing it to various colleges and universities. After the conservation project was underway, I had the opportunity to talk to Larry Shutts, who was the conservator of all of the works that you’re going to see in the exhibition. I wanted to talk to Larry Shutts about what lessons were learned. And I’ll tell you all that we haven’t learned nearly as much as we had hoped to about this untitled Matador. But after comparing some of the work that he did on these murals, he could tell us a couple things. One, he could tell us that there were some areas of the Matador—the top, the upper portion where his brocade jacket is—that are very overly painted. They’re very overly painted. And then, when you see this pink area under the cape—that is very clearly Woodruff’s hand. So, as we talked about his strategies, his teaching methodologies, and how he liked to work with other people, we are confident that this was another one of those works that he collaborated on with a student or maybe it was this mysterious Charles Moore figure. We don’t know much about this Alfonso—again, this lower right hand Alfonso—we just don’t know quite who he is, so the lessons learned are honestly quite thin. We wanted to learn a lot more. There was no World’s Fair in 1944 and perhaps it was because of the war, things needed to change—we don’t quite know what his relationship was to any type of mural or if this was going to be a larger subject of a mural. We know that it was obviously cut down; we don’t know how large the original canvas was and you can imagine how keenly I’m going to be listening during the lunchtime conversations because I really want to know, what is the context of this Matador?

So as we bring in people to talk about testimonies and people who knew Woodruff or people who worked under Woodruff, my hope is that at some point we’ll learn more about this Matador. . . . In terms of our next steps, we’re interested in taking the painting up to the Williamstown Art Conservation Research Center. Of course that depends on a number of things, ranging from grants and other things, but we’re interested in taking the painting up to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. We want to do a grid-by-grid examination to figure out more about this particular work. We also know that this Matador could have been a number of subjects, but in the meantime, it really does continue to elude, but perhaps in the interest of time, I’ll conclude. Thank you.

Excerpts from a presentation by Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Spelman College.

Paradigms for Freedom: Hale Woodruff, the New Negro Agenda and Landscape

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Modernity and Heritage in Hale Woodruff’s Teaching and Art

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

Paradigms for Freedom: Hale Woodruff, the New Negro Agenda and Landscape — LeRonn Brooks:

 

It’s interesting that I get to talk about Hale Woodruff: my first degree was in painting and I remember as a young painter I was looking for a way to exist as a painter and Woodruff’s early works served as a paradigm for me. And it’s interesting—Talladega—both of my parents are from Alabama, so there are a number of things that are circling for me, so it’s an honor.

Between 1927 and 1931, Hale Woodruff toured France and surrounding areas, making paintings that were symbols of a new Negro looking for a different sense of place. And the Post-Impressionist-influenced landscape paintings he made during this period demonstrated a very personal desire to translate his new social freedoms into an abstract aesthetic as increasingly boundless as his desire to realize his potential. This process of adaptation, via travel and the envisioning of new personal spaces away from American segregation, was a form of witnessing felt by the body and intuited by Woodruff, a new Negro losing himself to find his place in life painting and the movement.

Woodruff was introduced to the New Negro elite after his move to Indianapolis in the early 1920s. His shows at local galleries, the colored YMCA, and the Herron Museum had brought him to the attention of the CRISIS editor, W.E.B Du Bois, who had awarded the artist several honors and several awards and had asked him to submit cover designs for future issues of the publication. Woodruff had, in fact, migrated to a city vibrating with New Negro energies. By the 1920s, Indianapolis’ African American community had developed a distinct cultural life, fostered by an environment of progressive social engagement.

Outside these urban confines, however, Indiana was an all-together different place. According to historian Emma Thornbrough the influx of African Americans into the state during the 1920s caused a rise in Ku Klux Klan membership into the high thousands. And with that increased membership came a more fervent push for the spread of segregationist laws. These laws had the effect of limiting the efforts of African Americans to assimilate into the cultural mainstream. This relegated them to colored-only spaces in the public sphere and afforded them few public accommodations. This reality made the work of Indianapolis’ New Negroes that much more important.

As a Senate Street YMCA membership secretary from 1925 to 1926, Woodruff was at the center of the city’s black intellectual and artistic life. It was there that he befriended prominent figures including Faburn DeFrantz (the wise director who introduced Woodruff to Alain Locke), the publisher Charles S. Johnson, Dr. William Pickens, the painter William Scott, NAACP director Walter White, and John Hope, then president of Atlanta University, who actually offered Woodruff at that moment a professorship but Woodruff declined. It would be these figures that would have a place in the artist’s life for years to come and it was White who, to quote Reverend Lewis, “passed a plate among wealthy friends who sent Woodruff to Paris in 1937, and it would be this small influential group who would provide the artist with much-needed moral and economic support before, during, and after his European tour.”

Alain Locke introduced Woodruff to influential dealers and wealthy collectors, such as Abby Rockefeller. As an academic Negro painter of European landscapes and not necessarily a painter of Negro experience using the figure, Woodruff wasn’t able to sell his landscapes consistently, however. Figure paintings such as Banjo Player—while in Europe—were more popular among patrons, and when the artist expressed his desire to turn away from the genre to a more racial art, it was Locke who encouraged him to continue to develop his skills in both genres, even if the benefits were not immediately apparent. This is the value of a good mentor. Locke saw Woodruff’s work and his work with young artists as a way to broaden the reception of African American identity and culture. He, and to varying degrees Du Bois and White, saw Woodruff and his peers as catalysts for integrationist change. Woodruff’s letters to Locke, Du Bois, White, and the Harmon Foundation’s Mary Brady during this period suggest that all involved were conscious of Woodruff’s important place within the movement. And each also understood their responsibility to help develop this rare talent whose considerable academic training allowed him passes to white and black worlds of cultural influence. What’s more, Locke, in particular, understood that Woodruff and his cohort, including William H. Johnson, the poet Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and others, were the embodiment for infiltration of black genius into America’s highbrow culture. . . . “Recognition from Paris,” stated Alain Locke, “provided the vindication that Negro artists wanted and needed.”

Whether sponsored by donations or fellowships or their own savings, young artists of Woodruff’s generation, white or black, flocked to Paris, then the center of the art world after World War I, to seek training and the affirmation of their talents in the cultural spheres of Paris. Yet in America, the use of public space had been highly contested for black artists. Art historian Richard Powell writes about William H. Johnson’s bad reception in his hometown of Florence, South Carolina, when he tried to paint in public and was received very badly by the people who didn’t expect to see a black man with an easel and his bohemian wear. When Woodruff arrived in 1937, he reveled in his newfound social mobility, traveling widely unhampered by the threat of racial violence and oppressive racial laws. He took to the city streets, pacing the sidewalks leisurely and taking impromptu trips to its suburbs, making sketches along the way as a correspondent for his native Indianapolis Star. These articles, according to the artist, were meant “to give an idea of life and something of the art world back to the Indianapolis readers of that paper.” His description of a church in Mendon fixes the city directly in his imagination. “Most of the day had been taken up by walking and sketching,” stated Woodruff, “so I decided to find my way out the maze of little streets and start toward the station. In this attempt I found I had walked to the extreme west end of Meudon, near the railroad station but about a mile from that station.” You should really read his letters—it’s incredible how he keeps finding himself in this particular moment. What’s more—Woodruff and his friend were so enamored with their newfound freedoms that they often played a game by blindly pointing to a map of Paris and then travelling to wherever their fingers landed.

An important theme in Woodruff’s paintings of the 20s was bridges. These bridges can be interpreted for metaphors of passage. From one body of land to another, and the giving of oneself to the future. In Chartres, Paris Landscape, Bridge near Avalon, and Medieval Chartres, the artist chooses commonplace objects existing in the shadows of the grand monuments. In each painting, Woodruff depicts these low-lying icons in a style reflecting his study of European modernism, specifically the late paintings of Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne, and in each Woodruff applies a loose brushstroke indicative of these artists, yet does not push the excessive handling of either paint or form to an extreme. It’s like the paintings are metaphors for the old saying that “you have to understand what something is before you tell me what it will be.” In Chartres, Woodruff depicts a bucolic house built in the side of the bridge overlooking a common river. He displays an appreciation for the intimate scale of the bridge house and its tranquil setting above a placid river. Placed squarely in the midpoint of an unpopulated walkway, the house signifies a space of liminality, fixed between banks. Several years before Woodruff’s departure, Alain Locke stated, “As an individual, the Negro artist’s task today is not merely that of expressing his modern self into contemporary idioms, but those of his adopted culture.” Woodruff’s paintings during this period operate within this strategic logic, which historian Stephen Daniels understands to be “symbolic activation of time and space, which gives shape to an imagined community of the nation.” Providing visual shape to an adopted icon of his adopted nation, Woodruff’s picturing of Parisian bridges at this moment was a maneuver of personal significance. . . .

Woodruff’s newfound freedoms extended to the performance of his identity. Scarlet Miller stated that Paris allowed for African American artists not only to reach out into the territories, but also to define their spaces of themselves for themselves. In her groundbreaking work, the author states that “by the 1920s, there were enough black American artists in Paris to make what Woodruff termed to be a ‘Negro colony of artists, sculptors, painters, print makers living a bohemian life in the Left Bank of the French countryside.'” In this environment, Woodruff, the unshaven bohemian, took a newer, more uninhibited approach to a life in painting. He had, in fact, rejoiced about his existence outside the normative bounds he once accepted, remarking during these heady days that he had no “master,” no thematic dictator, other than his own curiosity. “The clock I pushed,” he said, “then was the love and reverence for art and my employer was a burning desire to create and produce.” As a result, his dilemma was not solely a question of where he could go, but of taking advantage of this opportunity and this place in whatever form it came. If he were to grow as an artist, he understood that he had to be ungodly resolute in his approach to his craft. . . .

Consequently, after leaving Paris for the countryside in 1929, Woodruff impersonated a French North African colonial for the possibility of better employment. Back in Indianapolis, Woodruff had been fairly successful as the director of the Y; however, this position did not make him a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination. As a marginally paid faux-African day laborer in Cagnes-ser-Mur, it would be wishful thinking to have considered Woodruff even working class under those circumstances. Yet, in spite of his poverty and his lapsed American-ness and the suspicions of the French working classes, Woodruff remained cheerful if not content about his untenable situation:

I passed myself off as a Moroccan, a Moor, and got a job as a road laborer down . . . in southern France. . . . It was not as hard as it might sound—working on a road with rocks. There was always a mid-morning break, and then four o’clock you go home. So you had plenty of time to rest. I liked the other laborers. I carried on my back a sack with a bottle of wine, a hunk of bread, and a hunk of cheese. That was our eating the whole day.

In Cagnes-ser-Mur, however, Woodruff was situated firmly outside the restrictions of American class paradigms. French bohemianism certainly provided a wider and less judgmental array of ethical allowances for artists euphoric at that intersection conjoining poverty, unselfconscious living and class liberty. According to Woodruff, “I think one of the things that appealed to us as much as anything else was the casualness in this beautiful hilltop Eden. I remember that I did not shave for a year and a half. We wore sandals and we’d go down to the ocean to dip.” This was undoubtedly not the ethos expected or romanticized in the small but influential circles of refined Negroes in Indianapolis.

By 1930, Woodruff had relocated to Cagnes-ser-Mur before his money had run out. He figured he could live in this town more cheaply than he had in Paris. “I was experiencing great need and great discomfort, not to say hunger.” He wrote to the Harmon Foundation’s Mary Brady, stating that while circumstances were favorable, he could not go on much longer giving the increasingly grim state of his finances. Fortunately for the artist, his plight did not go unheard. On April 17, 1931, NAACP President Walter White wrote to the artist Harold Jackman on Woodruff’s behalf. These are the contents of the letter:

Dear Harold:

Mr. Nathan W. Lewis, Comptroller of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, came to see me on Monday, just having recently returned from France. While at Nice he visited Hale Woodruff, the young Negro painter, who has been the winner of a Harmon Award and who is the most brilliant of the younger Negro artists. . . .

Some years ago I was introduced to Mr. Woodruff in Indianapolis where he was then there working as membership secretary of the YMCA. Through a letter I was able to induce Mr. Otto H. Kahn to contribute a small sum for two years to enable Mr. Woodruff to study in Europe. As a result of that and other aid given to him, together with his own efforts, Mr. Woodruff had now spent three highly profitable years in France. By profitable I mean in the improvement of his technique and in the broadening of his own horizon.

Unhappily, he has not benefited financially. Mr. Levin told me a most heartrending story of Mr. Woodruff’s present situation. Mr. Levin took Mr. Woodruff to luncheon and in his own words ‘Mr. Woodruff tried his best to treat the meal as though it were an ordinary affair but he could not quite conceal that it was obviously the first good meal he had had in a long time.’ Mr. Levin informs me that Mr. Woodruff was about to be ejected from his small and inexpensive house where he is living and working and it seems that Mr. Woodruff is in dire need.

Mr. Levin gave me his personal check for ten dollars and it is my idea that a few of us might contribute each a small sum and send it to Mr. Woodruff. Mr. Levin feels that it would be a God-send to Mr. Woodruff in his present predicament.

Woodruff left France, financially destitute but having accepted John Hope’s second offer of a job at Atlanta University, within several months of completing this painting here, Provencal Landscape. Its evident instability correlates with the artist’s feelings of apprehension at his continually rootless existence in those last days in this, his second country. And it was here that Woodruff and his cohort, with the help of his supporters, continually refigured the imaginative possibilities of the New Negro movement, moving it into as many new and unanticipated directions as he had his brush across the canvas. And although his compositions owed much to the history of modern painting, a written history of modern painting will owe much to an artist such as Woodruff, who understood that the imagination can define a place for the body to explore. Thank you.

Excerpts from a presentation by LeRonn Brooks, Lehman College.

Plenary 2

Hale Woodruff in Context: Transforming the Image

Hale Woodruff in Atlanta: Art, Academics, Activism and Africa

Hale Woodruff in Context: Transforming the Image

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

Hale Woodruff in Atlanta: Art, Academics, Activism and Africa — Amalia K. Amaki:

 

Good morning, and this is indeed an honor and a pleasure because of two of the people that I love the most in the history of modern art, Nancy Prophet and Hale Woodruff. . . . I do have such an adoration for Woodruff on so many levels, but I will be talking about Woodruff in Atlanta.

You know, he had a dilemma. He had a dilemma as an artist, asking himself how to continue to be relevant not only in terms of [being] a contemporary presence in African American art, but a future presence in American art. He also had a dilemma because Woodruff was not a teacher. When he came to Atlanta, Atlanta plopped him into the first teaching position of his life, so he had no history as a professor to fall back on. That was good news and bad news, and as he was often so proficient in doing, he took a bad situation or a challenging situation and made history out of it. He also had the dilemma of having to place art within the context of a curriculum that had a very strong tradition already in music and dance and theater, but he had to create a kind of place for the visual arts within that curriculum. He also had the dilemma of incorporating what he had learned and what he had discerned in terms of the relationship between African art objects and what was happening within the African American art community in America.

He had another dilemma: he came into a city, Atlanta, that had a very cliquish and opinionated black middle class. Many of those individuals who were on the forefront in terms of leadership of black Atlanta culturally did not know him. He was known by Hope; he was known by Reed; he was known by W.E.B. Du Bois; he was known by a handful of other professors, but as for the black elite of Atlanta, Woodruff was just a name. What is so fascinating about what he did is—and let me tell you about Woodruff—Woodruff was not thrilled to be coming to Atlanta. He much preferred to have gotten a position at Fisk, and his thinking was, “Well, you know, Tennessee is still in the South, but it’s not as deep in the south as Atlanta is.” . . . He came to New York and he pondered the question before he plunged into that position. He came and, according to a comment that he made at some point to John S. Holloway, one of his students, he said, “I’ve done everything in New York but cry in pondering taking this position.”

But he came and did what he was so proficient at doing. Within a week of being on that campus, the word spread and it was no longer, “This man named Woodruff is coming.” What people were saying, even within the black middle class in Atlanta, instead of saying, “This man named Woodruff is coming,” they were saying, “He’s here.” And they were saying it with pride. He began as a professor by doing what he did best, and that’s paint. He was very generous in allowing his students to observe him in the studio. One of the conditions he insisted on with Hope was that he had a studio that was adjacent to his classrooms. This is how he ended up so early on the campus of Spelman College; Spelman had the space and it was, in fact, Florence Reed who was so supportive and essentially said, “We will find a way to place him and we will help you find the money to pay him.” So there was always this sense of cooperation between campuses in the AUC. In fact, at that time, the AUC operated more like a family than as the sort of autonomously defined institutions that we have there today; they did not see these great lines of demarcation that are so much a part of those campuses today.

So Woodruff came, and he painted, and he taught. And one of the things that he brought with him was all of the lessons that he learned, particularly in France. Now, according to a former student, Myra Washington, he would say things like, I know this isn’t France, but you don’t have to be in France to see, and you don’t have to be in France to think, and you don’t have to be French to paint. So he had a very personal and caring and lively way of inciting his students to want to learn. He also, very early on, would talk to his students about the lessons that he learned as an artist from observing African objects. He said, “There’s nothing more important to the roots of what I do than my pursuit of what the Africans knew.” . . . [And] there was his continued pursuit of just what those fundamentals were that compelled non-African people—and by that, in the 1930s, he meant Europeans for the most part—to see that there was this viable truth that was fundamental in the expression of things through what we call art. What was it that they could see and could not name? And that was a profound observation for him to make and an important thing for him to speak over to students because you’re talking about cultural people whose first order of the day is labeling and naming things that are not European. So this was important for him, and he intrigued his students by showing them images of African art and on occasion, when African art shows were in the city, he made certain that they went to observe those objects firsthand.

I have to make a little aside here about William F. Scott because Scott was so important to Woodruff, not just as a painter, but as a teacher. He said, “Scott didn’t know it, but he was a great teacher.” So Woodruff saw himself as a student of Scott’s and I thought that was important. It’s very important to know who it is that you are learning from. . . . He was very aware of Scott’s role as his teacher. He was also very aware of how important it was to understand the uniqueness of the narrative style of Henry Tanner. It was Scott who told him, “There are two things you have to do, young man. You have to go to France, preferably Paris, and you have to meet Henry Tanner. He will not live forever. One day you’ll be proud you spoke to him.”

So Woodruff didn’t forget that and when he went to Paris, he went to see Henry Tanner. [But] Tanner wasn’t that thrilled to see him because [Woodruff] didn’t announce that he was coming, and Tanner was semi-retired and when you’re semi-retired, you don’t want surprises. But that was another one of the gifted elements of the Woodruff style. Woodruff could endear himself to almost anyone. And they ended up not only spending the couple of hours that Woodruff anticipated—they spent the whole day [together]. So Woodruff then became a student of Tanner’s.

I want you to see what these artists were doing that was influencing him. Palmer Hayden became his best friend in Paris, and it was through Palmer Hayden that, if nothing else, he began to really understand that you can understand the stylistic undergirding of a great painter and you can apply them in your process of creating without imitating them or copying them. And that’s one of the great lessons he learned from Palmer Hayden. He said he also liked Hayden because Hayden liked to talk.

This landscape by Woodruff is very revealing [shows slide]. It’s possibly the first painting that he actually completed once he arrived in Atlanta as a professor. And he had always, up to this point, defined himself as a landscape painter. It was important for Woodruff that once he was in place in Atlanta that the landscape of Atlanta become his muse. So the landscape did, and even though he was influenced by people like Monet . . . and Cezanne more than probably anyone else, except maybe Picasso later in life . . . he took those fundamentals and he applied them to that southern terrain. As a landscape painter in the South, he became intimately involved with the red clay of Georgia and Alabama, and with the devastatingly eroded conditions in places like Mississippi. In fact, instead of running from them, he ran to them. He was taken aback the first time he experienced the high winds that can be a part of any thunderstorm on any given day in Georgia. I think that if you’ve ever been in the Deep South when these horrendous thunderstorms suddenly come up and the wind is blowing, and it’s not a tornado—it’s just the nature of thunderstorms in the Deep South. These things became a part of his repertoire and he did not shy away from it.

As a teacher, Woodruff did not see teaching and painting as that separate. I think it’s the advantage of not being academically trained to teach. So he did what Africans do—they do it naturally. He had the camaraderie of great thinkers in the AUC, people like E. Franklin Frazier and Whitney Young and W.E.B. Du Bois. They were not only supportive in terms of advancing programs that he wanted in the AUC, they bought his paintings. When Prophet came, his world was transformed. He finally had that formal art department that he always wanted. He said, “If you’re going to do it, do it.”

When he looked at the terrain, the environment, the land that defined the South, he saw something else that reminded him of Africa: there was not that separation . . . between the people of the South and the land. As far as he could see, they were not only unified, they were one. That was always the narrative of the South, [which] repeatedly brought him back to an understanding that there was this sort of intuitive relationship between the people and the land.

I have to tell you this little story because it’s fabulous . . . it really speaks to the respect and the regard that Woodruff had by 1940. Romare Bearden and Charles Alston made a pilgrimage to the South to meet Woodruff. They ran into Owen Dodson and Nancy Prophet (Owen Dodson was doing a residency at Spelman that year) in Prophet’s studio because they had heard about this woman named Nancy Prophet. . . . They go to Prophet’s studio and here is Owen Dodson, and they are like, “Oh my god, Owen Dodson?” Prophet has just finished carving a head of Owen Dodson, but she doesn’t tell Bearden. She says to Bearden, “Why don’t you look at this head and tell me who it is?” So he goes through any number of well-known African American males, and she says, “You have just failed my class because the subject of this bust is standing right next to you. It’s Owen Dodson.” I think that’s when Bearden made the decision that he was going to really study art and write books.

. . . I think it’s significant that about a little more than ten years prior, here is Hale Woodruff making a pilgrimage to the suburbs of Paris to meet Henry Tanner because it’s a must-visit. A decade later, here is Romare Bearden and Charles Alston making a pilgrimage to the Deep South to see Hale Woodruff because it is a must-visit. It speaks to not only the significance of Woodruff in the minds of the great African American artists at that time, but it also speaks to a tradition that was firmly established when he made a point of writing that it was a necessary trip to make the pilgrimages.

It’s also very important to know how [Woodruff] transformed the city of Atlanta as a teacher, as an artist, and as an activist. He tore down the barriers of the High Museum of Art. He said, “You cannot teach about art if the students don’t see great art.” He heard about this High Museum, which people said was “up there on Peachtree Street”—up there like up north. You know, it’s just the idea that in the minds of African Americans it was perceived as far away—far away because it was not accessible. So [he] was breaking down those barriers, teaching people who were not students enrolled in the AUC—and I think it’s also significant that his first mural [was done] as a WPA mural at David T. Howard Junior High School, the only black junior high school in the state at that time, and that he does his last mural in Atlanta at Wheat Street Baptist Church, the only church mural that he painted. So I will end by saying the beauty for me at the end of the day is here is Hale Woodruff, who was convinced that history could effectively be taught through art, and here he is as a man whose art is history. Thank you.

Excerpts from a presentation by Amalia K. Amaki, Artist and Art Historian.

Hale Woodruff in Context

Hale Woodruff in Context: Transforming the Image

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

Hale Woodruff in Context — Cheryl Finley:

 

Good afternoon. I’d like to begin my talk this afternoon by acknowledging some people who are significant to me personally, but also to this day and this really important symposium. I’d like to thank my dear friend and colleague Dr. Deborah Willis for the very kind invitation; and Amalia—thank you so much for a brilliant presentation and for emphasizing as well not only Woodruff’s time in Atlanta, his experience in Atlanta . . . but . . . the texture of the city of Atlanta when he was there, when he was teaching and painting . . . Barry, what a brilliant introduction to the morning, and it’s always such a pleasure to hear you speak and to be in your presence . . . and, of course, President Hawkins for having the vision to think about not just what the value of these works are, but also to consider what that value might mean for Talladega, for African American art, and for the nation. For us to see these works—I think it’s really important. I actually began my career as art historian, as an art appraiser, so I understand what you’re talking about when you talk about the value of those works. . .

So I begin my slide presentation and my talk today thinking about Hale Woodruff in context with an image that is not by Hale Woodruff [shows slide]. As you can see, it’s actually a work by the sculptor Ed Hamilton and it’s about the Amistad in New Haven, Connecticut. I studied at Yale, and when I arrived at Yale, there was a lot of Amistad mania. Many people were very interested in the history of the Amistad . . . it is very much not only a Sierra Leonean story, but also a Long Island Sound and New Haven story. . . . I arrived in 1994; in 1992, as you see here [shows slide], a monument to the Amistad had been erected, and I’ll talk more about that in just a moment. But I also want to emphasize the monumentality of the work of President Hawkins, [and] the monumentality of Hale Woodruff’s best-known mural, the Amistad mural, particularly this slide here of the revolt. And I think about this image and its monumentality not only because of its size, but also the way in which it was envisioned early on that this mural and the murals that he did would be installed in a public place. He chose the medium of the mural, which has publicity ingrained in the definition. . . . The Savery Library, named after one of the first graduates of Talladega, would be . . . a place where everybody could come, not only students of Talladega but also the people who lived in the town. I think it was important at that moment to have a place where people could come and do their research at a library with images such as these actually available for them to see.

I’m showing you here another view of the work of Ed Hamilton in New Haven [shows slide] to also talk about how this work, like the work by Woodruff, which Hamilton would have seen, and from which he would have studied not just the documents and records that are available in New Haven, but its . . . tri-part structure, wherein an image of the leader of the revolt, Cinque, is seen prior to coming to end up in New Haven, Connecticut, on trial. It’s actually in sight of the jail in which the Amistad Africans were jailed during their time in Connecticut. You also see a scene from the courtroom and then one of his eventual return.

This, of course, is one of Hale Woodruff’s most important panels, the scene in the courtroom. And here, I want to point out and emphasize the way in which Woodruff treats the figures, not only the figures of, of course, the most prominent here, Joseph Cinque, and the way in which he stands very proud and self-assured. He is, as Dr. Campbell said earlier today in her introductory remarks, like Woodruff was, standing tall and very fierce. But you see these conversations and groups of people and pieces in a mural where you can really see the narrative unfold. And I think the idea for Woodruff in his focus on and his choice of the mural is to be able to have these narratives told—narratives in this format that had not been told in the past.

And here [shows slide], I’m showing you an installation shot of the library to give you a sense of how central [the murals] were when they were installed in the library, and how, if you can think about yourself and your experience walking into the space—many of you have already seen the [Woodruff] exhibition across the park—to be in the presence of these monumental murals while you’re studying, while you’re becoming an intellectual, is really important. Of course, not only did Romare Bearden and Charles Alston travel to see the murals and to meet Hale Woodruff, we also know that Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois and many other black intellectuals and leaders were very enraptured by the work that he had done and the way that he had gone about researching before he actually sat down to conceive and map out the different parts of the narrative that he would tell. . . . I think that there’s a certain legacy that we see in the works by Hale Woodruff wherein we can see this atmospheric sensibility that he had in his painting. In this last third panel, we can see the raging ocean and his use . . . of texture, of not only fabric but also the texture of skin, the texture of sails, the texture of—really—the moment that’s unfolding right here before our eyes.

One of the things that I wanted to go back to as I was talking about the murals that we have in New Haven was that at this moment in the mid- to late-1990s there was this Amistad mania with Steven Spielberg’s film, The Amistad, of course, but also . . . with the historical records from the New Haven Colony Historical Society, and then in Connecticut at the Mystic Seaport with the launching of the Freedom Schooner Amistad, which was launched in 2000 and which continues to serve as not only a memorial and a monument to the moment. . . . To make a connection back to Woodruff and the project at hand that is on tour with the Amistad murals around the United States . . . there’s a way this monumentality is something that’s being experienced. In the case of this image here [shows slide], globally history’s being taught, globally we see that this ship is in Cuba, but with the work of Hale Woodruff and this narrative, we’re seeing that it’s being placed in other parts of the world that have significance for the history [of the event]. . . . In the U.S. Custom House in New London, they’ve begun to uncover and understand the significant history of the state as it is related to the Amistad . . . many plaques and monuments have since been also erected.

Woodruff, of course, like others who followed him, relied on the historical record, the paintings by Jocelyn. We have here also an example [shows slide], a photograph by Arthur Rothstein of Woodruff actually painting one of the scenes from the mural. But these are some of the historical images that Woodruff, consummate researcher, would have come across [shows slides]. You can see that he sees, for example, the tools that are used for cutting sugarcane—the machetes—how they became a really significant part of the murals. How he doesn’t choose this type of depiction of enslaved Africans. This is a really significant article from the abolitionist movement from the U.K. and the U.S. that was published in 1879. . . . It was very shocking because [for] the first time . . . it actually shows the interior of [the ship] and how slavers would pack their human cargo in a very organized and scientific realism sort of way. . . . This is another historical image that would give you a sense of insurrection, yet not an insurrection in which one would imagine from the gunfire and . . . the barricades that the African captives would actually be on the winning side of. Instead—for Woodruff—he’s more interested in using the different pieces of this history, these different artifacts and documents, to tell a historical narrative. . . .

Excerpts from a presentation by Cheryl Finley, Cornell University.

Afternoon

Keynote Address: Putting Africa Back Into the Amistad

Putting Africa Back Into the Amistad Rebellion

Keynote Address Delivered by Marcus Rediker:

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

Good evening everyone. Good to be at NYU. Good to be with some old friends and colleagues: Mike Gomez, Sinclair Thompson is here. And it’s especially wonderful to be here now to celebrate these magnificent murals by Hale Woodruff. I think these are really spectacular works of art and I think they capture something important about the Amistad rebellion that we have been busy forgetting for many years so I want to talk about that. My remarks are going to be in two parts this afternoon: I first want to speak about some of the findings of the book [The Amistad Rebellion], which Mary has kindly mentioned—the things that I discovered that really deserved a new kind of emphasis, the African origin and cultural logic of this rebellion—and secondly, I want to talk a bit about an extraordinary trip that I made just this past May with some other scholars, one of whom was Philip Misevich, professor at St. John’s. Phil and I, and another colleague, Konrad Tuchsherer, and a man named Taziff Koroma, a professor of linguistics at Ford Bay College, went to southern Sierra Leone to the villages where the Amistad Africans had come from and talked to the elders there about what they remembered about this case. I want to say a few words about that trip toward the end of my talk.

Now I’m going to begin with a fairly simple proposition: how we tell stories matters. And the Amistad rebellion has been a very important story in American history and a much broader Atlantic history for a long time. It was one of the few successful revolts made by enslaved people and, as such, it occupies a special place in our recollection of the past. Now let me say a word about how I came to this project. Mary mentioned my previous book called The Slave Ship: A Human History. This is basically a study of American and British slave ships over the long 18th century and the millions of people they transported to the New World—to America, to Jamaica, to Brazil, among other places. This book is full of horrors. I don’t know how better to say it. The Middle Passage is one of the most gruesome things that one could ever imagine. I lived with this horror for several years while researching and writing this book, and I can tell you that there was only one thing, one redeeming virtue, to be found in that history. And that redeeming virtue is that the enslaved people aboard those thousands of slave ships, under the most desperate and impossible conditions, still fought back in every way they could imagine. They committed suicide, they committed collective suicide, they bound themselves together and created new languages, new ways of communicating with each other. And they rose up frequently, much more frequently than we thought, in insurrection aboard these ships. Only rarely did they succeed, and yet they kept fighting anyway.

Now, when one of these rebellions took place and when, as almost always happened, it was savagely repressed by the captain and crew of the slave ship, there commenced a spectacle for the rest of the enslaved people on the ship, all of whom were brought up on deck to watch the torture and mutilation of those who had dared to rise up. I can’t begin to describe the things that were done to those who dared to lead an insurrection. And the message, of course, was “This is what we will do to you if you challenge us.” Still they kept fighting. As I’m studying this, in the back of my mind is the Amistad rebellion, a successful rebellion. How did they do it? I wondered. You see, there had been a few successful revolts on slave ships, but usually those took place while the slave ship was still near the coast of Africa, so it was easier to get back to the Mother Continent. Very few successful revolts happened in the Western Atlantic, which made it even more interesting how they were able to succeed.

So I had very basic questions: How did they do it? How did they organize themselves? How did this multiethnic group of people in the hold of the Amistad revolt converse with each other and decide that they wanted to wage a revolt of the kind that Hale Woodruff depicted with such brilliance? How did they do that? Just a simple question. You couldn’t assume that it was easy, because I knew from my previous studies that it was not. Well, I went out and read all of the scholarship on the Amistad revolt. And guess what I discovered? Nobody was really interested in that question. It was somehow taken for granted. Now that’s not to say that we didn’t have very good studies of the Amistad revolt—we did and we do and one of them is actually by Iyunolu Osagie. She’s written a very interesting book that I recommend to you, The Amistad Revolt, and one that does deal with the African side of the story, and in this she joins with Arthur Abraham, a very distinguished historian of Sierra Leone.

But most of the histories of the Amistad case produced in America were interested in neither the African side of the story nor the revolt itself. They were interested really only in the court case—that was the drama. And here’s the way that version of the story is usually told. I’m going to make a little fun of it as I summarize it for you. There was this group of Africans who somehow got enslaved and somehow found themselves aboard this vessel called the Amistad and somehow managed to make an uprising and somehow managed to get to the northern end of Long Island, and then the United States Navy took over. And then began quite a drama, in which they were taken to jail in Connecticut and then in rushed a virtuous group of white people to save them, hence the hero of the story is almost always John Quincy Adams, who was a brilliant and important part of the story, but in my book he comes in in the final chapter, only at the end. . . .

Now, in the dominant version, you will recognize not only history, but Steven Spielberg’s film. How many people have seen it? There is hope for all of us yet. We don’t have to depend on Hollywood. Now as these benevolent white people are saving the Amistad Africans, the Amistad Africans have basically one purpose, and that is to stand around looking noble. And this of course is a racial trope of long duration—the noble savage—but in terms of actually understanding who they were, in other words, making sure they do not stand outside of history and culture, that would require a completely different retelling of the story, a completely different chronology. It would require you to begin the story in Africa, which is what I have done.

. . . The other thing I want to say is that this emphasis on the court case, which was really dramatic, I admit it, has had a very important effect. The more we concentrate on the court case, the more the rebellion itself is pushed to the side. Now about that move, I say, without the original rebellion, John Quincy Adams has no one to defend before the Supreme Court, so let’s not put the cart in front of the horse. Let’s talk about who really made this history happen. So not only is John Quincy Adams not the hero of this story, it’s also not true that—and this is a secondary argument of some of the scholarship and certainly the film—that the other hero is the American legal system because it worked, [an argument] to which I say: do you mean the same legal system that was holding 2.5 million in bondage at that moment? That’s the hero of the story? That’s not the hero of the story. So I tried to tell the story in a different way.

Now, I want to just mention that my way of retelling the story is part of a dissident strand of interpretation, of which Hale Woodruff was a very important part because, as you know, he created three panels in these murals: the revolt, the court case, and the return to Africa. In his mind, the revolt was just as important as the court case. And the African ending is a crucial part of the story. So what I’ve tried to do, I think, is relate a version of the story that has been connected to freedom struggles for a very long time. And you might know, many of you, that along with the name Che, a great many children were named Cinque in the 1960s and 70s.

Let me actually go back to this for just a moment [shows slide]. What’s fascinating about this is that Hale Woodruff had actually read the history and what you can see in the background are the two sailors who deserted the ship. You can see up on the mainstay the Afro-Cuban cabin boy named Antonio. You can see other fairly realistic things, all within a context of movement. I mean, this painting just screams movement, action, people taking action. This is the formative action. This is the origin of the story. . . . Here [shows slide], of course, is a famous engraving from 1840 drawn by a man who visited the Amistad Africans in New Haven jail, so he actually knew who they were, he had talked with them through interpreters and we can actually recognize who some of the Amistad Africans were. Here is Antonio at the upper left, Captain Ferrer in the middle, Jose Ruiz, one of the Cuban slaveholders, towards the very back, and here are Amistad Africans wielding cane knives or the machetes that were found on board the ship. So here’s a depiction of the rebellion at its very moment.

Now, when I first began to work on the Amistad case, I wanted to do, as I’ve always done, a history from below. . . . What we have with the elite abolitionists and presidents and things like this is a history from above, a fairly traditional history from above, but I wanted to do a history from below, and all these learned people said, “You know, there really is no evidence about that.” I was very interested in the insurrection on the ship. “Well, you’re not going to find much about that.” Being ornery by nature, I didn’t listen. And I found about 75 first-person accounts of the uprising, told by seven different people. And I found 2,000+ newspaper articles, and lots of correspondence, and lots of material about who these people were back in Africa. It’s really possible to know a lot about them, and I’ll tell you something else: a lot of the best evidence was lying there right in the plain light of day, and a great many people had just not been interested—partly because I think they were blinded by the legal drama. They did not want to look at this from the point of view of those who made the rebellion.

Well, I have two images that I think will give you an idea of the quality of the evidence we have [shows slide]. On the far side is one of the four children who was aboard the Amistad, a little girl named Margru; she was about nine years old. She actually played a very important role—I’ll say more about that in a minute. She ended up being the first black graduate of Oberlin College and became a missionary. Next to her is a man named Grabeau. Grabeau was, by all accounts, the second most important member of the Amistad group, the second in command, you might say, after Cinque. He was known for several things; he had been a warrior; he was a man who was an extraordinary acrobat. When the Amistad Africans would go out onto New Haven Green from jail, they would do the most astonishing gymnastic moves and large crowds of people would gather to observe them. “Better than any circus athlete you’ve ever seen,” people would write. (More about that, too.) But most specifically about Grabeau, he was noted as a man who had a great many, what were called, tattoos. Of course they were not tattoos; they were ritual scarifications. They were what Mike Gomez has called “country marks,” meaning those marks of a particular West African identity. [Grabeau] had these marks, which meant that all of the other Amistad Africans would have read his body and known immediately that he was a very important person, because those marks were added as one ascended in spiritual knowledge within a very important institution called the Poro Society, an all-male secret society that really governed the lives of most villages in the part of Sierra Leone where these people came from. We should have more to say about Grabeau in a moment.

. . . [The] machetes: how did they find them? Well, I had this great moment of research when, sitting in the National Archives of Great Britain, I found the answer. A British diplomat in Cuba wrote that it was the three little girls who were not chained and had free run of the ship who wandered around opening up the cargo boxes. One of them was Margru, whom you saw. They were all Mende; they knew that Mende warriors used cutlesses or large knives and they communicated the presence of these to the men. Now I want you to pause and think about this: you’re a Mende warrior trapped on a slave ship, and suddenly you find out that the weapon you are most accustomed to using in the Mende way of war is right there, waiting for you to pick it up. Is this not an invitation for your freedom? It must have seemed a gift from the ancestral spirits, who were very large, by the way, in Mende cosmology.

So this is how they did it—they used these knives. And there are all kinds of things about the Mende way of war that are crucial to understanding their success. . . . You can actually see in the rebellion that they are doing exactly what Mende warriors did as they waged war back in southern Sierra Leone. Now, I’m happy to tell you that during this trip I made to Sierra Leone in May, I had the great opportunity to speak to a great man named Ernest Endomahema [sp], who is the senior member of the Mende warrior secret society, the Woondu [sp]. I had a chance to talk with him about the training of Mende warriors. . . .

Because all of the groups [to which the Amistad Africans belonged]—whether Mende, Kono, Temne—all had Poro societies, they knew how Poro societies worked, and one of the main emphases of the Poro society was to declare war. So, in the hold of the Amistad, you have a collective meeting of a Sierra Leonian Poro society, in which they are debating whether to go to war, and they finally decide that they will. So again, it’s that African cultural logic, and in this particular case, a specifically West African form of self-organization. This is what allowed them to come together.

I was so relieved to hear Mr. Endomahema say this about the Poro society, because I had gone out on a limb arguing that this was the key to the revolt, and my book had already been published. Believe me, I was never happier to hear him answer a question that way in my life. As I learned about the Poro society, I learned that that pretty much had to be the way that these people organized themselves. But I had a big problem: I couldn’t find evidence . . . and I discovered the reason why. Any man initiated into the Poro society takes an oath on the pain of death never to reveal its secrets, so the Poro society was never once mentioned in any of the evidence gathered while the Amistad Africans were in the United States. This is a big problem for a historian, but I did finally find evidence for it of two kinds.

The first was when the Amistad Africans went home and arrived in Freetown. This was a big event—hundreds of people were awaiting their arrival. This was January 1842 when they arrived. The missionaries aboard the vessel with them wanted them to go ashore dressed in Western clothes [and] singing a Christian hymn to announce their new identity. Well, it didn’t work out quite like that because literally as the men were exiting the ship, they started taking off their shirts. The missionaries were not happy. They saw this as a reversion to barbarism, to heathenism. They were infuriated, but as usual the missionaries really had no idea what was going on, because what the Amistad Africans were doing was taking off their shirts to show their country marks to this multiethnic group of people in Freetown, people who had been liberated by the slave ships. There were probably 50 different ethnicities there, from the Congo to Angola to Senegambian to all kinds of West African people, so the men wanted to say, “I’m Mende, I’m Temne.” Finally the missionaries began to understand this and one of them wrote a letter home and said, “You know, these marks that they have are really very important to them.” Well, no kidding. This is who they are. And you know what those marks are? Those are Poro marks. Those are the marks that men get when they are initiated into the Poro society, so that’s one piece of evidence.

The second is in some ways even better. Thirteen years after the rebellion, a young woman named Hannah Moore went to the Mende Mission established in Sierra Leone. She happened to be there for what happened to be a holiday meal and four or five of the Amistad Africans were there. She asked them, “What’s your memory of the revolt?” They told her and she wrote it all down in a letter to a friend. It’s like an oral history.

Now, you need to know before I tell you the next little bit that there is a Mende phrase that is crucial to the Poro society and that phrase is ngo yela, which basically means ‘one word’ or ‘unity.’ The Poro society’s purpose was to create unity, to create a single understanding, especially in the context of going to war. So, when those veterans of the Amistad struggle told young Hannah Moore about their memory, they actually described the debate that took place in the hold of the vessel. Stunning—no other source mentions this at all. And what they said was that an elder—and you must remember the importance of elders in these societies of Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa—an elder had challenged the group, saying, “Are we not great warriors? Are we going to allow this to happen?” But it turns out there were four men there who were opposed to rising up and capturing the ship, so a debate developed, and eventually, those four men relented, decided to join the decision to go to war—that Poro decision. And then, said the people telling the story, at that moment we had one word. In other words, they literally translated the Mende phrase ngo yela. We had one word and that word was war and we went to war. So again, the African side of the story means everything. It means everything.

Now, when we went to southeastern Sierra Leone to try to learn more about this story, we were very fortunate to have this man I mentioned, Taziff Koroma, who is a brilliant linguist. . . . We would come into a town where we knew one or more of the Amistad Africans had come from, and Taziff would go to the town chief and say, “We want to gather all the elders. We want to ask them questions. We want to talk with them about history. We want to talk with them about what they call ‘slavery times.'” And so we did . . . We visited ten different villages.

. . . What we learned was highly various. In some places, we learned a great deal, in some places, not very much. In some places, there was a lot of memory, and others, not so much. This [shows slide] is from a town named Blama [sp], with the paramount chief of the region, Mamamatumbo [sp], and his grandson Victor, who really loves American basketball. Here we are, actually, in King Siaka’s own village [shows slide], talking to a man who is gesturing here, who is a direct descendant of King Siaka, and he is describing to us how King Siaka brought the European cannon to the village. And in all the surrounding villages, you would see these cannons, which go back to the 1830s, 1840s. This man was very interesting: when I asked him how King Siaka became such a powerful figure, he didn’t blink. He said it was because of his alliance with the slave traders. He grew wealthy—he grew powerful because of this. So there was no denial of that part of history. When I got around to asking him if he knew anything about the Amistad Africans who had been enslaved in the interior and brought to Lomboko—where King Siaka traded with Pedro Blanco—when I got around to asking him, his answer was, “Why would I care about them? They were just slaves.” Interesting. Here we are on our way to the ruins of a village that was once presided over by a man named Amara Lalu . . . who rose up and fought against [King Siaka]. At least two of the Amistad Africans fought in this battle.

We had our greatest success in a village called Follu [sp]. Follu was a place where two of the Amistad Africans had originated, and we know that both of them went back there upon repatriation, and one of them—the one whose image I showed called Grabeau—stayed. So we talked with all the elders about these two people; we gave them their names. We immediately discovered that the names that the Americans had written down were mangled versions of their African names. We did finally figure out their African names, but then we hit a roadblock. It turns out Grabeau’s real name was Giobou [sp], but even though we had the right name, the elders were shaking their heads and saying, “No, no, we don’t remember. We don’t have stories about such a person.” And then finally one man sitting down front began to tap his temple and he said, “My grandfather told me the story of a man who went far away in slavery times—we don’t know where he went—but when he came back, he spoke broken English. His name was Johnny [sp].” Now, as is common in Mende villages, when someone has a new phase in life, they’re given a new name. So this man was now called Johnny. And as soon as this man mentioned Johnny, four or five other people said, “Johnny, Johnny!” They had stories about Johnny, too. And it turns out the stories that they told matched perfectly the documentary evidence that we had about Grabeau—that he was a traveling merchant, that he was a weaver, that he was a leader, that he was a great acrobat. This village where he was from was very near Gola country and the influence of the Gola people who are known to be the greatest acrobats was very important. And then we had this great moment in which the oldest woman in the village, Fodi Kaloa Kolone [sp]—she may have been in her 90s, 100s—smiled and said, “Johnny was my grandfather.” So we think we found a descendant.

Another major quest that we had was to try to find Lomboko, try to find the ruins of this slave trading fortress, even though we had read, for many years, that it was underwater, because that coastal region, the Gallinas, is estuarial and the shoreline is always shifting. And even when we were talking to people like the man in Gendema, Siaka’s village, he said, oh yes, he knew where Lomboko was, but it wasn’t there anymore, it’s all under water. And we began to get very discouraged. . . . We were literally on our way out of the south when Taziff, our interpreter, told our driver to pull over. He went into a market village and just began walking around. We knew we were close to it—we had maps—and he found a man who said, “I don’t know where it is, but I know who will know.” He said there was a little fishing village about seven miles down the river. He said, “I’ll go with you,” and off we went down on what could not really be described as a road. It was basically a bush path, but seven miles down the road, we came into this little clearing with about seven or eight huts—mud, wattle, and thatch huts—and we went over to the townspeople, found an elder there by the name of Vende Masocoy [sp], and Taziff asked him in Mende, “Do you know this place called Lomboko?” He said, “I do.” [Taziff] said, “Do you know where it is?” He said, “I do.” Then he pointed to his sons; he said, “My sons are fishermen on the river. They’ve seen the ruins of the old buildings.” And Taziff then said, mixing Mende and the old Malcolm X phrase, “Can you take us there by any means possible?” And he said, “Yes, I can.”

And so down we went on this bush path to three dug-out canoes, and I will tell you, when we got there, they didn’t look seaworthy to me. So we head off into a mangled swamp—what was a really spectacular voyage, took about an hour, in this crocodile-filled mangrove swamp. We were too full of purpose to think about that, maneuvering around one set of mangrove roots to another. . . . Finally there’s two thick, kind of tangled sets of roots, and . . . there’s about an 18-inch opening [between them]. I’m in the front of the canoe and pulling to the side, [and] there is Lomboko straight ahead of us.

. . . Really the adventure was just beginning, because it turns out Vende Masocoy not only knew where Lomboko was, he knew a tremendous amount about its history, because his family had lived in this village for several generations, and his grandfather and grandmother and grandparents had passed down stories of what happened in this place. So this man, who has never read any of these books about the Amistad rebellion, says, “This is a place where Pedro Blanco set up a canopy and he sat on this side of the table, and King Siaka sat on this side of the table, and they traded slaves for guns, and then Pedro Blanco’s men taught King Siaka’s warriors how to use the guns to go capture more slaves and bring them to the coast.” He knew a tremendous amount about the slave trade. And then we ask, “Is there any story about the Amistad people? Were they here?” He says, “They were all right here. They were all right here in this place.” He says, “And Cinque, when he was brought to this place, he was actually already known as a great warrior. He begged to be executed as befitted a great warrior. But for the sake of humiliation, probably by Siaka, who probably had a bounty on his head, he was to be degraded by being sold as a slave.” So, consequently, [Cinque] was brought to the island. And guess what he did. As soon as he got here, he organized an uprising. . . . It was put down, [and Cinque] was separated until put on board the slave ship.

So notice: he did it at Lomboko. I found evidence that showed he did it on the first slave ship called Tocora. And then he did it on the Amistad. You’re talking about a natural born rebel. He had that charisma; he had the ability to make people believe they were going to be free. It’s an astonishing story, and in every place where he was captured, the authorities did exactly what they had done at Lomboko: they separated him from everybody else because his influence was so great.

. . . I [can’t] tell you what a profound experience this was to hear this history from someone who knew so much about it, and to stand in that place—this desolate, forsaken place, where the Amistad Africans had stood as they awaited shipment out of the only place in Africa they had ever known. I mean, it was the end-of-the-earth kind of feeling at that place, surrounded by crocodiles so they wouldn’t run away, but that was their origin.

I came back with a much deepened understanding of the book I had written, proving the old adage that the book is never really finished. And I must say, I was worried that I would find out things that would make me have to rewrite a lot of [other] things. By the way, I have just written a new epilogue about the trip, which will appear in the paperback version of the book in November. But my final point really is this: if you want to understand how history is really made, if you want to understand how events like the Amistad burst onto the national, international consciousness, you have to study history from below. And if you’re going to study history from below, you’re going to have to make use of every conceivable source and sometimes, folks, those sources are living human beings on the other side of the Atlantic. Thank you very much.

Excerpts from a presentation by Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh.

Plenary 3

The Amistad Rebellion Reconsidered in an American Context

The Cuban Slave Trade in the Age of the Amistad

The Amistad Rebellion Reconsidered in an American Context

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

The Cuban Slave Trade in the Age of the Amistad — Jorge Felipe Gonzalez (read by Ada Ferrer, Professor of History, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, NYU):

 

Jorge’s paper examines the emergence of a powerful Cuban slave trade in the early 19th century. In the age of slave trade abolition, the growing power of the Cuban slave trade helped give rise to late developing slave trading factories like Lomboko, the slave trading factory, as Professor Rediker mentioned, where the Amistad captives were loaded. In the three decades between the U.S. slave trade ban of 1808 and the Amistad case, powerful networks brought together American merchants and capital, Havana merchants and planters, slave traders, and West African factories. This paper, then, is not about the Amistad case per se, but about the Atlantic connections between Africa, Cuba, and the U.S. that are the necessary contexts in which the voyages of the Amistad captives unfolded.

When in 1789, Spain ended the state monopoly of the slave trade and opened up the slave trade to Cuba, Cuba did not then have the technology or professional sailors to undertake the crossing to Africa, let alone to establish trading factories or business contacts there. At this time, Cuban planters still depended almost entirely on foreign slave traders. For example, among the 343 vessels that arrived in Cuban ports between 1804 and 1808, only two were Spanish and almost 90% were American. Just in 1806, of the 62 slave ships that entered the port in Havana in that year, 58 had American flags and crews. In those same years, the U.S. itself witnessed a dramatic growth in the arrival of slaving voyages from Africa. According to David Eltis, over the entire period of the slave trade to the United States, American-owned vessels had carried 306,000 captives from Africa. Remarkably, in the first decade of the 19th-century alone, U.S. vessels took up no less than 109,000 captives. That is over one third of the captives brought to the U.S. arrived in just a handful of years right before the end of the trade. “No other country involved in that traffic,” says Eltis, “generated a pattern remotely like this.” The slave trade ban of 1808, then, raises an obvious question: What happened to the existing investments and capital in the American slave trade business? What happened to the more than one hundred slave ships that had arrived in 1807 alone, carrying captives to the U.S.?

During the same period, the slave trade in Cuba was undergoing vertiginous growth. Hundreds of slaving expeditions were shipped from Cuba. The growth of the slave trade there was staggering. Havana merchants had sent out 70 expeditions between December 1808 and February 1811. Between 1811 and 1815, over 15,000 slaves were brought to Cuba. In the following years, the figure quadrupled. 100,000 Africans were forced to cross the Atlantic to Cuba in just a five-year period between 1816 and 1820. Jorge’s hypothesis, then, is that to some extent, the vertiginous growth of the Cuban slave trade based in Havana after 1808 was driven by a substantial transfer of capital, human and financial. And the transfer of expertise accumulated in the slave trade by North Americans, who after the ban on trafficking in the U.S. shifted their investments into Cuba. Driven by a sustained boom in sugar and coffee in Cuba and the rising coffee market in the southern United States, a large group of American merchants joined forces and capital with planters and traders in Havana to prolong the existence of the slave trade and the institution of slavery itself. The displacement of several American slave traders to Cuba and the gradual transfer of the expertise of the business characterized this period after 1808.

. . . The Spanish flag and Spanish papers provided cover for many American traffickers. After capturing several such vessels off the coast of Africa, the British Parliament called for international cooperation to defeat this abominable traffic. They claimed, “Several notorious traffickers in human flesh have moved to Havana with the intention of forming establishments open to evade the prohibitions in the act of abolition.” In the same period, many American families acquired property in Cuba and they became partners in commercial companies registered in Havana. There have been many examples like the Wolfs, the Fraziers, the Booths, the Mitchells. The Cuban insurance companies protected their investments and they could go to court to protect their investments and testify without using—as they had to in the U.S.—euphemisms or misrepresentations in their real business, which was the slave trade. In this way, some ships outfitted in Havana smuggled African captives into the United States itself. For this reason, it is possible to study the smuggling of slaves into the U.S. itself from the Cuban archives.

American slave traders moved not only to Havana but also to Africa. In the south and north of Freetown emerged minor reports of the slave trade as a result of the British ban on the trade in 1807. Such was the case of the rivers Pongo and Nunez to the north and Gallinas and Cape Masanagu to the south. These movements in Atlantic space involved a relocation of commercial networks. When the Americans, who already had relationships from traders in Havana, settled in African factories, they directly connected to the three geographical areas. This meant for the Cuban slave trade access to new transoceanic relationships.

An example of American traffickers seeking new spaces were the brothers Paul and Jacob Faber. Both of them were natives of Baltimore and were involved in the slave trade between Charleston and Sierra Leone before 1808. After the slave trade ban of 1808, they settled in Pongo, a coastal enclave north of Freetown. Starting in 1809, when ships from Havana began to frequent the factories on the estuaries of Sierra Leone’s rivers, the Fabers often provided them with captives. They supplied slaves to the ports of Havana and Matanzas, and from time to time they even sent contraband Africans to North America. Through Jacob Faber, who often traveled to Havana, some Cuban merchants established business networks on the Pongo River, which became a frequent loading point for vessels flying the Spanish flag. As a result of these emerging U.S.-Cuban networks forged in the slave trade, new names became familiar in Havana: the famous John Ormond, for example, who frequently crossed the Atlantic to negotiate with his Cuban partners, and who sent two of his sons to study Spanish on the island; or the well-known Theodore Canot, who was half-French and half-Italian, multi-lingual and educated, a slave trafficker who served any flag, the very incarnation of the transnational illegal traffic in the nineteenth century.

By 1814, when the harassment of the slave trade by the African squadron of the British navy started to create serious trouble for the slave traders of Pongo, Jacob Faber moved to Havana. It was there that he was hired by a group of Havana merchants to administer a factory in the south of Sierra Leone. Recall that it was from Lomboko factory at Gallinas that Amistad captives would embark for the Americas more than two decades later. The National Archives of Cuba hold extensive documentation from the factory at Gallinas, including letters, statements, descriptions, journals, and so on. The study of this factory is a perfect case for Atlantic micro-history because there, joined in a single space, were different nationalities, cultures, and networks built around the business of the slave trade. Faber remained in Gallinas between 1817 and 1820. There he was close to local chiefs, including King Siaka himself, and actually Jorge consulted letters signed by King Siaka to some of these American and Cuban traders in the National Archives. Anyway, while Faber was there for three years, he developed these connections with local leaders and he shipped about 2,500 Africans to Cuba and he also sent some slaves to the southern United States and Brazil.

When Faber left Gallinas, he was succeeded by a young Spanish captain from Havana called Pedro Blanco, who would become one of the most notorious slave traders of the nineteenth century. Blanco, in fact, had been in Gallinas in the era of Faber as well as in the Bight of Biafra. He was also an experienced captain of a slave trading ship. It was no coincidence, then, that Faber’s factory would be transferred to Pedro Blanco. Gallinas flourished as a slave trading port in the second decade of the nineteenth century, precisely in the period after Pedro Blanco’s arrival. According to David Eltis, there was, in fact, a displacement of the trade from Pongo to Gallinas. The most active period of the trade in Gallinas was between 1824 and 1839, which coincided with the height of the slave trade to Cuba. According to the figures in the Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, of about 80,000 captives who were taken from Gallinas, more than half were shipped to Cuba. Between 1816 and 1846, according to Adam Jones, the British captured 23 ships from Gallinas carrying 51,000 slaves, of whom 48 percent were children and infants. Except for three of those vessels, all were headed to Cuba.

Still, the slave trade in the age of Pedro Blanco remained a deeply transnational business and one that was closely related to the Americans. Take, for example, the schooner . . . known as the Thomas Smith, built in New York in 1828 and sold in Cuba in 1837. In 1838, with Pedro Blanco among its owners, it headed to Gallinas to purchase slaves to bring to Cuba. When it was captured by the British near Gallinas, it was flying a Portuguese flag. According to Michael Zeuske, Cuban traders were often owners and cosigners of apparently Portuguese ships, such as the Tecora mentioned earlier, the first vessel on which the Amistad captives traveled. The previous year, 1837, the schooner Diligent, en route also from Gallinas to Havana, was captured also using false Portuguese papers and a false Portuguese flag. It appears to have been a common practice for these ships coming from Cuba to fly Portuguese flags. On the [Thomas Smith] were found documents, dated 1838, that suggest continued U.S.-Cuban collaboration in terms of the Atlantic networks of Gallinas. “We found,” said the British captors, “a set of bills for five hundred dollars, drawn by Pedro Blanco of Gallinas on Peter Harmony and Company of New York.”

Indeed, Jorge and his coauthor, Mariel, have uncovered new information that connects the Amistad and Peter Harmony of New York. Peter Harmony was a partner of Blanco, and when the Amistad was brought to the U.S., a journalist in Washington interviewed José Ruiz. José Ruiz was the man who claimed to own most of the captives aboard the Amistad, and he was on the vessel during the rebellion. And José Ruiz happened to have on his person a letter for Peter Harmony and Company of New York, whom he described as his agent. Peter Harmony was born in Spain, actually, in 1776, then moved to the U.S. in 1801. By 1805, he was in New York registered as a mariner. By 1810, he had become a merchant. By 1812, he was a partner of G.G. Holland in an enterprise probably related to the slave trade.

A few letters of Peter Harmony, preserved in a collection of documents in Havana, show his early involvement with the slave trade business in Cuba in the early 1820s. In 1825, again with G.G. Holland and James Wolf, he was a shareholder in the Atlantic Insurance Company of New York, which was set up for the purpose of insuring marine risks, inland navigation and transportation. These marine risks were related to the losses suffered by slave ship owners as a result of persecution of the traffic by the British squadron in the Atlantic. As a prosperous merchant and banker based in New York, Harmony had been investing money for decades in the slave trade from Africa to Cuba. He provided credit and guaranteed the exchange of bills for all of the major Cuban slave traders, Pedro Blanco among them. Like many other New York City merchants, Peter Harmony also invested money in the U.S. cotton business. In 1836, he founded the Harmony Manufacturing Company in upstate New York, which became for a time, in the words of one observer, “the richest, the largest, the most complete cotton manufacturing establishment on the American continent.” Still, Harmony never gave up his direct investment in the slave trade, as is suggested by the papers found aboard the [Thomas Smith] and other captured slavers. In this context, our finding that José Ruiz, the owner of most of the Africans aboard the Amistad, was carrying a letter for his agent in New York, Peter Harmony, comes as no surprise.

This presentation is an outcome of research that crosses various sources of Cuban archives and other documentary collections. It permits a glimpse into the complex and markedly transnational character of the nineteenth-century slave trade and sheds light onto the important role played by the U.S. in the Cuban slave trade. Because so much of the publicity of the Amistad case focuses on the court case and on the final portion of the captives’ voyage, the transatlantic slave trade and the networks that sustained it have, until recently, remained hidden from view. Yet, if we pay attention to that side of the story—to what happened before—and we view the case from the vantage point of the Cuban archives, America’s encounter with the Amistad is not so emancipatory a tale. In this view, the U.S. is present not only when the captives are declared free in court, but implicated at their very capture across the Atlantic Ocean.

Excerpts from a presentation by Jorge Felipe Gonzalez (read by Ada Ferrer, Professor of History, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, NYU), Havana.

Excerpts from a presentation by Earl Maltz, Rutgers University School of Law.

Art and the Amistad

The Amistad Rebellion Reconsidered in an American Context

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

Art and the Amistad — lyunolu Osagie:

 

Good afternoon. It’s a real pleasure to be here. I was really delighted to be invited to come up to speak. I’ve never been to NYU before. I would like to talk about . . . something that I have discovered that I think is really important in the Amistad story and the way in which the Amistad has actually inspired people in their artistic renditions. But before I actually go back to the American context, I do want to go forward to the Sierra Leonean context. I was born in Sierra Leone and I grew up there, went through high school, finished high school, and it was only when I came to the U.S. and was teaching at Penn State and I was teaching Robert Hayden’s poem, “Amistad,” that I actually discovered the Amistad incident. Now, that’s a little odd for someone who was born in the country where the Amistad story should have been celebrated. So it was through just reading that poem and trying to teach that class that I discovered this whole history was out there, and I thought to myself, “I can’t believe this. This isn’t possible.” And so I actually got some grant money and I went back to Sierra Leone and I started to talk to people.

Well, I had been out of Sierra Leone for a number of years, so to go back to Sierra Leone to begin to ask questions about why I didn’t know about this, only to discover that, in fact, everywhere I turned, everyone was celebrating the Amistad—it was the craziest thing. So my question now became, why did we forget and why do we now remember the Amistad story? That became the investigation . . . and the outcome was extremely interesting.

The Amistad story, as we know, happened—we’ve all talked about [it] over and over again. The history was there, and yet, in Sierra Leone, for so many years, it wasn’t a celebration for many reasons—part of it, of course, being that the Amistad captives got free in the U.S., went back to Sierra Leone, and some of them actually got re-enslaved again. . . . Some of them actually died fighting to save themselves in the wars that we’ve been talking about with King Siaka. So, it was just more complex than we can imagine. But to cut a long story short, I guess there weren’t a lot of reasons to celebrate the Amistad in Sierra Leone. And over time, people had sort of just erased the whole thing . . . the imposition of colonialism must have added to the problem as well. So the question then is why, after 150+ years, this whole thing is being celebrated; that became the issue for me.

What happened was that Professor Joe Apollo from the U.S. . . . was teaching anthropology and in his course, Sierra Leonean Heroes, the Amistad‘s Cinque, which we call Sengbe Pieh, was one of the characters [studied] and the students in his class were actually surprised, just like I was. They said, “It’s impossible that this happened.” But what happened next was that one of the students, who happens to be an in-law of mine, Charlie Hoffner, took up the story and they started to perform the stories. [But] people around lived in denial just like I did, not believing this could have happened. And to some extent, even though they were going around talking about it, showing this [performance], no one really paid attention.

People only paid attention after there was a military coup in Sierra Leone in 1992. . . . I grew up in Sierra Leone. If you want to talk about a cynical place, that was a cynical place. We just did not buy into any way in which politics could change our [situation], so we all tended to be extremely cynical. So for this incident—a military coup—to take place at the same time as the play, and in doing the play with a coup taking place at the same time—people spilled out of the theater . . . to discover, “Oh my goodness, there is a coup in Sierra Leone?”

What happened next was that people actually rushed the stage and picked up the Amistad ship—the replica, the prop on stage—and started running into the streets, screaming, “Sengbe Pieh! Amistad revolt!” So, in other words, the Amistad revolt actually became—not only just something you heard about faintly, vaguely, or as some kind of incredible fairy tale that really didn’t happen—it suddenly became real. And people actually thought that somebody called Sengbe had just led a military coup, so that was how the story of the Amistad actually became a household story in Sierra Leone.

Now, with that backdrop, I wanted to find out, “Well, why is this so significant?” And one of the things that I discovered is that it is so important that whatever history we have be usable. If it is not usable, we tend to relegate it to the trash heap of history. So it was after this coup that people actually started to see themselves as agents who could actually do something about their situation. . . . It was in the present moment that something that was actually a historical fact became important.

. . . Now, in looking at the issue of the present-ness of the past, it’s very important to see that the only reason history survives is because we continue to tell the story; it is because we continue to see ourselves in that story. And I took that [idea back with me from Sierra Leone to] look at some of the things that happened in the United States’ context. In the United States’ context, of course, we can go back one hundred years to Woodruff and his painting, so there’s always been this attempt to reestablish the story over and over again. And that’s really significant. I want to really point to the fact that the whole idea of promoting history really lies in our ability to recognize that the past is never actually past. The past is constantly being constructed and reconstructed in the present.

[Recently I’ve been looking] at the claim that Jean-Luc Nancy, the French philosopher, makes about the vestige in art. . . . The vestige is this idea or image that is resonant in the work of art—this particular present-ness that continues to speak to us way past the event itself. So, in the process of understanding that present-ness, we have to understand that it is in the present that the future is born. And it is in the present that the past is sustained. So, again, I guess I probably am throwing a line out there—first, to advocate for the artistic, especially the history of art, because in it we are able to learn about our own identity, we’re able to learn about our own present awareness of who we are as a people.

I also wanted to mention a few things really quickly—and one is Owen Dodson’s play. . . . They were commissioned together—he to do a play and Woodruff to do the murals, which was very interesting. The play was actually performed that April, the same time that the painting was unveiled, and it’s very significant. There is a difference in the way in which they articulate history, and I think it’s significant because if you really look closely, there are things that have actually been introduced into history that weren’t actually there. But without that present situation, our understanding or articulation of things in the past may not be there, so the significance of the presence is more important and more urgent than we imagine. In Dodson’s play, he minimized the significance of the legal case, which seems so important in other texts, including the Amistad movie by Spielberg, to really focus on the Africans and their case and the situation that they set up. And I really think it’s very important to constantly point to that.

I also want to talk a little bit about Ed Hamilton. There was someone here this morning who actually put up the monument in New Haven. In that monument, Ed Hamilton does some things that I thought were very interesting. One of the things that he does is actually put a stick in Sengbe Pieh’s—Joseph Cinque’s—hand, and that stick is something he actually picked up in the park in his Louisville community, in a park that at one point was actually a segregated environment. And the reason why I pulled out that example—because there are so many examples that I could have pulled out—but the reason that I pulled that particular example is to really show how important it is for the present to speak to the past and the past to the present—that by bringing things in that are in the present, we are actually revising the past. Just as there is more information—like the information that my brother, Felipe, mentioned . . . about the Havana history and all that’s there in the records that many of us working on the Amistad issue from this end have not even examined—how significant these things are and how they even change the record that we have already. So it’s really important to see history as constantly in the present and constantly moving forward.

One other thing that I think I should mention before I have to sit down is the significance of Hale Woodruff’s contribution. I think it’s very, very important, very significant. I’m so glad that he did this, and we have it for the record. But one of the things I wanted to point to in our exploration of the is-ness of history, that is the present-ness of history, is if you look closely at the Amistad mural, [you see] how he divides the picture in a way that the main character is never in the center. And I think, for me, that is extremely important. If you look here, Sengbe is actually not the person in the center at all. It’s always kind of off-center. . . . If you go to the second panel with the law case, you also see that there’s this blank space that’s in the center. And I see that moment as really pregnant with what is possible and what is not known. I think it’s deliberate on his part that he keeps these portions blank, almost as if he’s saying the reader or the audience or the onlooker has a part in the interpretation of that history. The person who comes to this picture also has a burden that becomes part of the expression of that artwork. And for me, his decision to make the main character a little bit off-center is really important because it does draw us in.

Lots of other things I could talk about, but let me just conclude by saying one thing and that is that if you look at Woodruff’s painting and you look at Dodson’s play, which were both unveiled basically at the same time at Talladega, we get to see that these interpretations of history really promote the urgency of the time in which they lived and the time in which we live in because one of the things they did was to try to bring in the Depression Era—remember, this was the era of the Depression. We can almost forget history in the moment of looking at something. We can almost forget that there are other forces at work, so it’s very important to really see that in their artwork, they always introduce their historical moment into the story of the past. . . . [But] their interpretation of history remains incomplete because the reality of viewer or audience must also be taken into account as part of the narrative of interpretations. It’s really very important. There are lots of details that I won’t go into—obviously, there’s no time for me to do that right here.

One last thing I can mention as well—I don’t know how many people are aware that Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a novel called Echo of Lions, which, of course, at one point, challenged Spielberg’s movie . . . it was settled out of court—she made some good money out of that, maybe more money than she could have made selling the book. But what was really important in that book, and also in the work of another person, John Thorpe—I’m trying to say two things at the same time—John Thorpe is a playwright who went to Sierra Leone, spent a year there, and [wrote a play about the] Amistad . . . called Chap Am So—”Kill him like this” is the translation. So, Chap Am So was done here off-broadway and ran for many weeks in 1996, and really what’s significant about these two African American male and female writers is the way they took the Amistad topic, owned it, revised it, reinvented some issues, articulated others, rejected some things.

In other words . . . the point I’m trying to make is that history is the sleeping document that we continue to massage into life. And that’s one reason why I found [Felipe’s] presentation from Cuba very powerful; I’m excited because I know that what they have to offer is an ultra-understanding of what we think we already know about history. [And] these two writers, John Thorpe as well as Barbara Chase-Riboud, [also] introduced very interesting things into the reading of the Amistad story. Both of them introduced strong female characters. Of course, we know there were three little girls in the story.

. . . The point I’m really trying to make here is that in our reading of the Amistad in general, there’s always a much larger story that must be articulated in understanding the Amistad story—about the Middle Passage, about the fact that women were aboard, and I liked what [what was said earlier] about the number of children on a particular ship, which surprised me because many of the historical details we’ve received always seemed to almost gloss over the fact that there were children, as well as even women. So, it’s really important to see that all of these other important aspects of the Middle Passage can begin to resonate through the way in which we reread the Amistad story. I think I’ll stop here. Thank you.

Excerpts from a presentation by lyunolu Osagie, Pennsylvania State University.

Plenary 4

The Wider Context and Implications of the Amistad Affair

Mapping Movement and Consciousness in the Afro-Atlantic World

The Wider Context and Implications of the Amistad Affair

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

Mapping Movement and Consciousness in the Afro-Atlantic World — Claude Clegg:

Good afternoon. Thanks for coming out. As Professor Gomez was saying, my presentation is designed to zoom the lens out a bit and give a more panoramic view of the historical context of the issues, the historical currents that the Amistad rebels and survivors are operating in during the late 1830s and 1840s. In my particular instance, I’m looking at the movement of people of African descent, not to the Western Atlantic, not to the Americas, but back to Africa, and the resettlement of people in this time period. I think one of the reasons that the Amistad case has such an element of fascination about it is that it’s a “triumph.” To say that elides a number of ways in which it is not a triumph, but the fact that these survivors actually returned to Africa makes the instance of this slave rebellion even more of a fascination for many. The return of the Amistad Africans to Sierra Leone, or their landing there, is within a larger context of a resettlement of people during the course of the nineteenth century in Africa, [people] who had been in bondage in the Americas, in many cases returning and in other cases not necessarily returning, but first arrivals—that is, [they were] born in the Americas but decided to live in Africa. So, my presentation is an overview of that migration of people around the Atlantic world, but in this case from the United States to Africa, with the Amistad African survivors being part of a lineage of people of African descent returning to the continent in search of liberty.

When the 33 survivors of the Amistad rebellion and trial landed in Sierra Leone in January of 1842, the migration impulse among African Americans, that is, the desire to improve one’s situation through movement, was as old as the United States itself. It was rooted in a longing for freedom from slavery and racial oppression and feelings of alienation from American society. During the nineteenth century and beyond, African Americans, substantially Christian and largely born in the United States, had only secondhand knowledge of Africa, and often viewed the continent in unflattering Western terms. However, in the eighteenth century, blacks interested in returning to Africa often had firsthand knowledge of the continent. They were not as assimilated into Anglo-American culture as later generations would be.

Surviving sources document a number of instances in which African Americans sought to return to Africa as early as the colonial period. They were motivated by a number of considerations. The burden of American slavery and racial prejudice certainly played a big role in their plans. Also, a desire to return to an existence in Africa that was believed to be better than the situation that they found in America was a consideration. The rhetoric of the American Revolution and the war of independence against Britain, as well as the disunity and conflict among the white settlers or white colonists in what would become the United States, encouraged blacks to press for improvements in their own situation as well.

In a number of instances, blacks petitioned colonial state legislatures for freedom and even filed lawsuits in the courts. In April of 1733, a group petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for liberty. The petition was not only remarkable for its skillful use of the revolutionary language of the period, but also for its call for relocation to Africa. According to the petitioners, in their words:

We are willing to submit to such regulations and laws, as may be relative to us, until we leave the province, which we determine to do as soon as we can, from our joint labours, procure money to transfer ourselves to some part of the Coast of Africa, where we propose a settlement.

Taking further advantage of the crisis in the colonies, enslaved people flocked to the king’s lines when the British offered to free slaves who had joined them in their fight against American independence. Perhaps as many as one hundred thousand slaves left their masters over the course of the war. Many of those who left with the British during the postwar evacuation went to places such as the West Indies, Spanish Florida, and Canada. A number of these refugees remained slaves—to have chosen the British side and to have flocked to the British lines was no guarantee that you’d be free after war, but in some instances people were granted their liberty after leaving with the British. Of these people, about 1,200 were transported to West Africa in 1791, where they founded the settlement of Freetown in the British coastal colony of Sierra Leone.

The Sierra Leone colony, which served as a settlement for black “loyalists” and Africans taken from slave ships following the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade by the British in 1807, was the first organized and sustained experiment with black migration to Africa from the Americas. Though it was a British colony, Sierra Leone drew the attention of many Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, who thought that a black departure from the United States might resolve the uncomfortable fit of American slavery with American Republicanism.

One early admirer of the Sierra Leone colony was Paul Cuffe, a free African American who had acquired substantial wealth in shipping. During the revolutionary period, he had helped open the Massachusetts political system to free blacks by filing a lawsuit, claiming—in the same tradition as the white colonists—that he was being taxed without being allowed representation in the state’s government. After a visit to Sierra Leone, Cuffe transported at his own expense and in his own ships 38 blacks to the colony in 1815. Cuffe died in Massachusetts before he was able to carry more people to Africa, but he had accomplished enough to spark the imaginations of others.

In December of 1816, a group of white men interested in black American immigration to Africa met in Washington, D.C., to form the organization called the American Colonization Society. The new organization’s purpose was, in its own words, “to promote and execute a plan for colonizing (with their consent) the Free People of Color residing in our Country, in Africa, or such other places as Congress shall deem most expedient.” Though it had a single goal, the motivations of this society were quite diverse and quite complex.

There were slaveholders in the organization who feared that free blacks set a bad example for their slaves (that is, they would make slaves also seek freedom), and these slaveholders wanted the numbers of free blacks, especially in the South, reduced. Actually, the free black population, largely due to the ending of slavery in the northern states following the American Revolution, had grown in size more rapidly than the slave population in the country. According to the 1790 census, there were 59,000 freed blacks in the United States and 700,000 slaves. According to the 1810 census, twenty years later, the slave population had increased only seventy percent from 700,000 to 1.2 million, while the free black population had increased from 59,000 to 186,000, which was a 215 percent increase during the same twenty-year period. Slave-holding members of the American Colonization Society insisted that the organization not mention general emancipation or even limited abolition in its charter. The Society, not wanting to alienate white southern supporters, conceded the point.

In addition to slaveholders, the American Colonization Society also attracted people who were generally interested in ameliorating the conditions faced by free blacks and [those] in bondage. Some simply did not believe that free black people would ever be accepted by the majority of whites as fellow citizens and thought it best that they be relocated outside the United States. There were those members of the American Colonization Society who saw the organization as an instrument for indirectly liberating slaves, and a number of slave masters would eventually agree to free their slaves for the expressed purpose of sending them to Africa, via the American Colonization Society. Later members would view the Society’s mission in religious and paternalistic terms, believing that black American immigration would help spread Christianity to Africa as well as western notions of civilization. While there was never just a single motivation behind the Society’s mission, there was always unity of purpose—that is, the removal of free blacks and newly emancipated slaves to Africa.

With few exceptions, most free blacks were anti-emigration, or at least the sort of emigration of free blacks to Africa that was being proposed by the American Colonization Society. Most African American opponents to emigration felt that the ACS was at best a misguided effort to address the racial oppression of free blacks. At worst, they felt that the organization was simply a scheme to rid slavery of its most vocal opponents, and to render the growing abolitionist movement ineffectual. Most free African Americans viewed the United States, for all its shortcomings, as their homeland—certainly by the nineteenth century. As such, they believed that they had every right to stay in the country, particularly when blacks had contributed so much labor to the establishment of the American economy.

If the American Colonization Society did not enjoy widespread support among African Americans, it did have enough friends and momentum to begin actively pursuing its plans. In addition to black cooperation, two of the assets essential to the success of its program, financial backing and territory, were among the most pressing needs following the founding of the organization in 1816. However, timely legislation passed by Congress in March of 1819 seemed to address at least partially both of these issues—the issues of land and funding. An outgrowth of the same slavery-tempered abolitionism that would lead to the Missouri Compromise the following year in 1820, this act authorized President James Monroe to remove “beyond the limits of the United States. . . all such negroes, mulattoes, or persons of color” taken from slave ships intercepted by naval patrols. These “recaptives,” as such people would later be known as, were to then be delivered to an agency to be established “upon the coast of Africa” for their settlement.

Financed with an initial appropration of 100,000 dollars, this act provided for the creation of an American-sponsored colony in Africa, which was, again, sort of a mirror image of what the British were trying to do with Sierra Leone. Although primarily designed to curtail the illicit and ongoing traffic of African slaves into the United States, the measure was interpreted by American Colonization Society leaders as a clear sign of federal support for at least the basic premise [of] what they were trying to do in transporting free blacks from the United States to Africa. Without hesitation, the Society—with supporters in Congress—quietly began merging its efforts with the new agency to be created in Africa for recaptives. In tribute to President Monroe, who had allowed white colonizationists to interject their agenda into the recaptive agency authorized by Congress in 1819, the first immigrant town was dubbed Monrovia and was established atop a promontory in what became known as the colony and—later republic—of Liberia.

Whatever the misgivings of various black spokespersons regarding emigration, there were enough African Americans interested in immigrating to Liberia to guarantee that the American Colonization Society remained in business for the rest of the nineteenth century. Certainly, if more slaves had been given the option of migrating to Africa, the numbers of emigrants would have been much higher than they were; however, notions of returning to Africa were attractive enough to African Americans seeking refuge from slavery and racial oppression to ensure that the idea did not die with Paul Cuffe.

Recaptives (that is, Africans taken from transatlantic slave ships by U.S. naval patrols) trickled in sporadically during Liberia’s colonial period, which ended with the colony’s independence in 1847. It was not until the late 1850s, when cheap prices for slaves revitalized the transatlantic traffic, that a significant wave of these displaced Africans reached Liberia. Between 1858 and 1861, about a dozen slavers bound for Cuba and elsewhere were intercepted and diverted to Monrovia in Liberia. A few, such as the Erie and the Bonito, landed nearly a thousand Africans upon Liberia’s shores, and by late 1860, over 3,600 recaptives had arrived in the republic in just two years. These waves of displaced Africans reconfigured Liberia’s cultural and ethnic tapestry in important ways. Even more so than in the past, recaptives formed an intermediate zone between African American immigrants and indigenous people. Like local Africans, they were exploited by black American settlers who were eager to use recaptive labor on their farms and in their households. Further, this influx of thousands of Africans, mainly from the Congo River region, darkened the immigrant population. These demographic trends would have significant implications for existing color prejudices, electoral politics, and patterns of “mulatto privilege” in Liberia.

Thus, by the time of the Amistad rebellion and the eventual repatriation of liberated survivors to Sierra Leone in January of 1842, there already existed a diasporic matrix of transatlantic networks that linked people of African descent. Whether revolution in Haiti, black “loyalist” flight to Sierra Leone, or African American colonization of Liberia, the movement of black people (including their values, aspirations, and bodies) created nodes of diasporic identities across the transatlantic world, mapping an Afro-Atlantic consciousness and a new political geography. The return of the Amistad survivors overlapped and reinforced these webs of identity, given that their landing in Sierra Leone succeeded those of black refugees fleeing revolutionary America in the 1780s, rebellious Jamaican maroons deported there by distressed British colonial authorities in the 1790s, and Paul Cuffe’s voyages a generation later. Curiously enough, key white players in the litigation of the Amistad case were also connected to these migratory dramas, including Judge Andrew Judson and attorney Francis Scott Key, both card-carrying members of the American Colonization Society. The restless Pan-Africanists of a later period, the Garveys and DeVorses and others, would further nurture these ties and connections, linking black people back-and-forth across time and space. The Amistad rebels, like their cousins in revolutionary Haiti and elsewhere, added fire and life’s blood to these transatlantic passageways, and their inspired struggle to return home became an elemental part of the lure of black resistance across the Atlantic world. Thank you.

Excerpts from a presentation by Claude Clegg, Indiana University.

The Atlantic Slave Trade in the Era of Abolition

The Wider Context and Implications of the Amistad Affair

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

The Atlantic Slave Trade in the Era of Abolition — Philip Misevich:

 

Thank you very much for the introduction. Let me say that it is a real pleasure to be invited to speak here in a symposium that commemorates the beautiful murals that hopefully you all have gotten a chance to see. I’ve never done a presentation at NYU, despite the fact that I teach in its backyard over in Queens, so it’s nice I got to cancel class this afternoon. I raved to my students about what I was doing and made promises about this being recorded so they can make fun of me down the road. But it’s a great pleasure to be here, and what I wanted to speak about was what’s often called the illegal Atlantic slave trade, what I like to call the slave trade in the era of abolition. And this is, of course, the slave trade that occurred after 1808, once the British and the United States abolished their nations’ participation in the slave trade. And the point I want to start out with is, of course, one we know from today’s presentations. It’s not that 1807 or 1808 ends the formal transatlantic slave trade . . . the reality is what happens in the wake of that legislation and subsequent British attempts to suppress the Atlantic slave trade. There are a lot of changes to the way the Atlantic slave trade itself operates, and that’s what I . . . want to talk about a little bit today.

I hope that my presentation will actually bring together a number of really interesting details that other presenters touched on. What I’m going to do is provide a little bit of a quantitative framework to understand some major changes in the kind of volume and structure of the slave trade. I am, as Professor Gomez said, a student of David Eltis, and if you’re an academic and have read David Eltis, he’s a quantitative historian. He may be horrified by the fact that everyone who has mentioned his name today has done so to quote a statistic. I’m going to carry that tradition forward a little bit today, but I think hopefully with the intent of making some good sense of some of these major nineteenth-century changes.

I start with this image [shows slide]—I was concerned about how clear it would be, [but] it seems to be showing up really well. Talk about a powerful image. A few presenters from the past panel mentioned how we don’t talk about gender dimensions of slavery in the slave trade; we don’t talk as much about the enslavement of children. This is, from what I know, one of only three actual photographs—this is an actual photograph of African captives liberated off of a slave ship. And I should start by saying that this was not a slave ship that was bound to cross the Atlantic; it was in fact . . . moving across the Indian Ocean. Much as the British had done in the Atlantic, they started patrolling later in the nineteenth century the Indian Ocean. And this group of captives had, in 1869, been taken off of this [ship and] photographed . . . and we are left with this kind of harrowing image that every time I look at it, different things stand out. I use it to underscore what I think is an incredibly human dimension to the story that I want to tell. And I start this way because lots of the data that I’m going to present today are in the form of data tables, and we want to remember that each statistic when we talk about the volume of the slave trade is a number of people aboard a slave vessel—that’s what we’re talking about.

Some of the things that stick out to me: . . . the emaciated state of some of the people on board; the youth—there’s a very high percentage of children on board this vessel. Some of the other photographs we have show this in even greater detail. But that’s not unique to the Indian Ocean slave trade. In fact, one of the things that I’m going to demonstrate today is that the enslavement of children in the nineteenth century spiked really significantly, and for reasons that are still debated. So, this image is just by way of getting us started—by way of me reminding everyone that in the midst of some of the data I’m going to put out there, this is the reality of what we’re dealing with.

So the Atlantic slave trade, of course, by the nineteenth century, was occurring under a changed context. That’s what a lot of this talk about the intersection of the slave trade and abolition is all about. The Atlantic slave trade doesn’t end until about the late 1860s, but as the British and Americans abolish their own participation in the slave trade, over time—the British begin trying to oppose or ban the slave trades of other nations—what we find is that there’s a radical shift in the way the Atlantic slave trade operates. The British, just to give a very brief and unsatisfactory background, try to get other nations to end their participation in the slave trade in a number of ways. They sign treaties with opposing powers that either regulate or altogether ban the legality of participation in the slave trade. They back up those treaties with the British navy at its height—1/5 of the entire British navy was devoted to suppressing the Atlantic slave trade. . . . They would chase vessels that were in breach of those treaties.

. . . The ultimate result, because of the changed legal context of the Atlantic slave trade and the way it was operating, is that you have this incredible amount of documentation about the 19th-century slave trade. Every vessel that was captured by the British went through a court case—special courts called the Courts of Mixed Commission were developed, where people would hear the case and decide whether or not the vessel was indeed in breach of the treaty. You can actually go back and look at all of those individual records. A lot of the documents taken off of the slave ships—they’re complex documents . . . but they’re rich sources of data. Not only do we know a lot about the organization and financial dimensions of the slave trade of the nineteenth century, these kinds of documents produce the kind of material that’s unrivaled for understanding African dimensions of the slave trade.

So my next source here—this source is a register of Africans who had been liberated off of a slave ship. So the British would patrol the African coast, they would patrol the Caribbean, and anytime they intercepted a vessel that was found in breach of the treaties, that was found to be illegally trading slaves, the British would actually record personal details of each person on board. If you can see at the very top, it says, “The Portuguese Schooner Diana, Register of Slaves Native to Africa Captured on Board . . .”—very interesting data beneath that. These are the indigenous, African names of the captives as they were taken off the slave vessel. And personal details—whether they were a man or a woman, their projected age, height. And in that descriptions column on the far right side, they were recording marks of scarification, so that if a person was re-enslaved, you could actually go back and determine whether they had been liberated by a British naval cruiser.

So, documentation unrivaled. One of the projects that I’m involved in right now is there’s 150,000 Africans whose names are listed in this way—and with a big team of scholars—what we’re trying to do is use the African name as an opportunity to learn more about where that person might have come from. So, this will highlight where the origins were of the individuals drawn into this trade. The sad reality, however, is very few—in a comparative sense—Africans were liberated by the British Navy. It’s estimated that about 3.2 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic after 1807. This is about one quarter of the overall slave trade between 1808 and 1867.

And what I want to do with the remainder of my presentation is outline some of the changes that we see in the slave trade before and after 1807 for those who survived to make it onto a slave ship and cross the Atlantic. Who was carrying slaves, which nations were most actively involved? Where did slaves go? What do we know about the genders and ages of the individuals put on board the slave ships? What can we say about the basic organizations of the slave trade within Africa as a result of this campaign to suppress the transatlantic slave trade? Those are some of the questions I want to detail very, very briefly.

. . . What I’m going to do is lay side-by-side this data [shows slide]. If you don’t know the website, it comes from slavevoyages.org. And what that website does is it collects information on vessels that were involved in the slave trade. Any kind of information that appears in the record with respect to that slave ship gets integrated into the website. The website itself has information on more than 35,000 separate slave ships and you can search it in all kinds of ways. If you’re interested in the African dimensions of the slave trade, you can search it by the region in Africa where a slave was purchased. You can search it all the way down to the tonnage of the vessel. And what the scholars who put the website together did was they used the information from the sources with a combination of sophisticated math formulas to develop broad estimates of the slave trade from multiple perspectives. And what this represents is the slave trade by national carrier—the flag or the nation of the vessels that carried slaves. [This is] much easier to do before 1807, as we’ve seen from several presentations. After 1807, the nation of the vessel is much more contested.

But what jumps out from this table is, of course, the very active involvement of Great Britain in transporting slaves. The British, for every decade-long period from 1751 straight to 1807, carried more slaves across the Atlantic than any other nation. The United States—to put this in perspective—never rivaled what the British did, but as we saw in a previous presentation, we see this tremendous spike from 1801 to 1807. All in a very short number of years. What we see is a very active involvement in the slave trade by the Portugal-Brazil category at the top. . . . Here’s what the picture looks like after 1808 [shows slide]. And what we see, not surprisingly, is the very quick decline of the slave trade on British naval vessels, a relatively quick decline of the slave trade under the U.S. flag, and an incredibly explosive growth in the slave trade under the Spanish or Uruguay flag and of course continued significance of the slave trade under the Portuguese or Brazilian flag.

Now we need to combine that with an assessment of where the slaves are going. Now, all we’re trying to do is pick out some trends here. So the next table distributes these numbers by the region of disembarkation—where slaves are being sent. And not surprisingly, we see an explosive growth within the Spanish Americas almost totally spiking as a result of the growth of the Cuban sugar industry—this explosive growth of the slave trade to Cuba. And what we see as well is this incredible slave trade to Brazil.

Again, when we look at these numbers, think about the photograph. Think about what we’re talking about here. The slave trade to Brazil in the nineteenth century averaged 40,000 to 50,000 captives per year, in its height reaching 76,000 people. We’re talking about the consumption of people, the exploitation of people in really unrivaled ways. What we see on both sides of the Atlantic is a kind of concentration of the way the slave trade operates. The slave trade is being carried out under fewer flags in terms of where the slaves are being taken in the Americas. It’s almost all going to Cuba and Brazil. So, the question I want to push forward with is: what does this mean for those caught up in the slave trade? What does this mean for the captives? They’re not just numbers. These kinds of changes that I’m illustrating in tables have all sorts of implications for how we understand the slave trade.

One way we can think of this is the change in the way the slave trade operated along the African coast. With the growth of the British naval patrols moving up and down the West African coast, what we find is that the organization of the slave trade in Africa changes dramatically. This, for example, is a sketch of Bunce Island [shows slide]. Bunce Island, like many of the other big castles or forts that Europeans built along the West African coast, was essentially built to be able to hold captives in large numbers. [Such buildings] were built to make an impact. They were large. They were fortified with cannons. The castles were generally located directly on the coast if we’re talking about the Gulf Coast, modern-day Ghana. In other cases, they were built on islands in the middle of rivers, as Bunce Island was. They were meant to stand out. They were meant to have an impact. So, you could see Bunce Island and all these other forts from a good distance away.

Contrast that with this [shows slide]—this is what we think is Lomboko, the very place that was so central a part to the Amistad and to so many people who were a part of the Gallinas. . . . This photo tells us not just of the Amistad stories, but of shifts in the slave trade itself, in how the slave trade operated. In the nineteenth century, if you were afraid of the British naval cruisers, which by the 1830s started going and burning down some of these slave factories, what you would have wanted was not to stand out, not to be in a big castle; [instead] you wanted your settlement to be built in areas that were very difficult for British naval cruisers to operate in and patrol. And that’s exactly what this image illustrates. When you contrast it with Bunce Island, no British naval vessel could sail through some of these waters, and that’s why the Gallinas area—that’s why Lomboko with its shifting sand bars, waterways—became such a powerful spot from which to operate slave trading. . . . It was essentially because it was a great spot to hide from the British. And so we see this contrast: the slave trade moves from the big forts, the big islands to the mainland, to areas that were hard for the navy to patrol.

A number of other things happened as a direct result not only of the abolition of the British and American slave trades, but of the British policing of the slave trade. And what I wanted to wrap this up with is a side-by-side contrast of what we can say from the statistical data about the slave trade up to 1807. I backed this up only to 1776. It wouldn’t have been a fair representation to go much further beyond that. But, side-by-side, what does the data tell us about how the slave trade itself changes before and after 1807. If you look at the third row down, which represents mortality rates, we see that after 1808, mortality rates go just slightly down, from just over ten percent to just under ten percent, and that number in the middle is just based on how many voyages we have information for. The length of the middle passage (if you look at the two tables side-by-side) decreases significantly. And part of the reason for that is the decreased routes the people are taking from the African side of the Atlantic to the American side. But based on . . . each table, you see that the middle passage goes from an average of 59.5 down to 42.5 days. The percentage of male slaves stays about constant and from that you can estimate the percentage of women embarked on slave vessels. But the most horrifying number of all is the change in the percentage of enslaved children. After 1808, the average slave vessel carried almost 35% enslaved children. And those numbers come primarily from all of that data you saw from the registry record, that primary source document.

I wanted to situate slave trade in the era of the Amistad in a broader context, talk about some of these major changes. One of the things that struck me as I was putting this together was, in fact, that the Amistad experiences were strikingly similar to the broader trends that we see in the slave trade. And the hope is that—[because] their experiences are much better documented than everyone else’s in this period—that maybe they can speak. They can provide some light, some inspiration for the 3.2 million people for whom we don’t have that same kind of voice. Thank you very much.

Excerpts from a presentation by Philip Misevich, St. John’s University.

Gendering the Memory of Resistance in the History of the Middle Passage

The Wider Context and Implications of the Amistad Affair

 

Friday, October 4, 2013
New York University
Kimmel Center for University Life
60 Washington Square South

 

Gendering the Memory of Resistance in the History of the Middle Passage — Sowande Mustakeem:

 

Good afternoon. Thank you to all who have stayed; I know we’re right at the end and it’s quite a heavy load to be the last person for today, but hopefully you’ll get a lot out of it. I want to thank the symposium organizers for everything that they’ve done and for welcoming me to New York. . . . And I would be remiss if I did not thank Professor Michael Gomez for personally inviting me to be here today. He remains an incredible inspiration to me through his scholarship and I’m really grateful for the opportunity that he’s provided for me today to not only join these conversations, but to do so in dialogue alongside various people whose work that I greatly admire. . . .

So, as I prepared for today’s panel, I found myself thinking about this fusion of artists and scholars and historians, collectively attempting to foreground critical themes of the past through a historical and contemporary lens. And earlier today, actually, I was speaking to Iyunolu. We were talking about how great it is to be in the same space at the same time because we are all doing similar work.

So again, I want to call attention to this idea of the historical, cultural bridging of worlds, because at almost the exact same time—or within a few years—that Hale Woodruff embarked upon his own murky and, at many times, dangerous middle passage, traveling between the southern locales of Atlanta, Georgia, and Talladega, Alabama, to produce this series of commissioned murals . . . that represented the 100-year anniversary of the Amistad mutiny—it was shortly thereafter that Caribbean historian Eric Williams would . . . produce what now has become a seminal text, Capitalism and Slavery. With that, he sought to remind the global reading world about the bloodstained, slaving past, and the lives exploited and lost and forever altered by and through the transatlantic slave trade. So, as a historian and teacher of the Middle Passage, I remain indebted to the multitude of artistic geniuses in our societal mix able to . . . not only bring light back into these historical, monumental moments, but to more importantly produce these visual, cultural artifacts that allow future generations to remember the past.

So, I want to tap into this now trendy topic of memory and, more importantly, the world of the seen and unseen that Hale Woodruff offers in this series of Amistad murals, which I will use as a framework to speak about the general phenomena of slave ship insurrections within this gruesome chapter of slave trading history. Now many of us here today could agree that the Amistad rebellion represents the most iconic battle for freedom waged on the high seas that we all can collectively remember. It is continually invoked in American and diasporic memories through monographs, novels, movies, and documentaries. . . .

[However,] Woodruff’s contribution to the historical journal Phylon is of equal importance to my discussion of slave ship revolts today. In fact, within this very same journal in 1944, historian Lorenzo Green stressed the importance of ship revolts as he similarly sought to write slaving voyages back into American and African-American history. Now, within this essay, he made a simple yet profound statement, suggesting that mutinies on slave ships served as a single scene of the first act of a mighty drama for freedom. Physical battles that some captives waged while others were witness out at sea extended beyond this watery world of the Atlantic, moving on land once ships docked and shipments of African people were sold to interested buyers. However, Green’s statement also subtly reminds us of the broader landscape of shipboard freedom struggles. The Amistad rebellion fits within that [broader] movement across temporal and spatial boundaries, [which is] far different from what is familiar in our minds in terms of the landscape of plantations. Yet it is this cultural and historical imagining that we as the public many times . . . project back onto the undercurrents of resistance pervasive to the Middle Passage that I find particularly fascinating. . . .

Beginning as early as the mid-fifteenth century with the Portuguese’ involvement with the slave trade, slave ship insurrections occurred. The violent collision of black-on-white bodies on slave ships happened in every century on different ships, up through and into the nineteenth century. Those sold and snatched away from their families, homes, and communities were not only forced into the hands of strangers, but regardless of the individual value that they may have generated on either side of the Atlantic, they were transported [without regard] to their humanity and consequently mistreated as human commodities. . . .

Forced into these desperately uncertain circumstances, bound people found creative ways to rebel, laying hands on knives and cutlasses and ropes and guns and sometimes even using their own starved and weakened bodies to fight against their enslavers and transporters. Slave traders, no matter their social status, may have tried to predict bound people’s behaviors both on and off the ship, yet being free and unaffected by the personal effects of enslavement, they were unable and, most times, unwilling to fully comprehend the reasons prompting these defiant behaviors. Resistance within the seafaring world of the Atlantic became a confined yet permanent reality . . . transforming slave ships into what I call mobile battlefields. Agency took a variety of [modes]: overt, private, suicidal, gynecological, and even the manipulative use of herbs, and so forth. . . .

Ship revolts took place on one out of every three vessels, and scholars likewise estimate that ships carried two to three black males for every one woman throughout much of the legal era of the slave trade. But it is by the end of the eighteenth century, with the coming of the end of the slave trade, that we would see shifts emerge . . . due in part to this growing emphasis on pro-natal policies, or rather slaveholders’ economic use of breeding and growing slaves [to preempt] the coming decline in the supply of black bodies and black people. Yet we are still left to uncover and turn over in our minds the types of captives who initiated and/or engaged in these types of violent behaviors.

So, I often will ask my students, “Who is ‘they’?” because “they rebelled.” So who is “they?” And moreover, what do we mean, or who are we speaking of, when we use the generic phrasing of “the slaves rebelled?” If we look more deeply to consider the playing out of slave ship rebellions, again, it forces this question: Who do we center on and who, if anyone, do we consciously or perhaps subconsciously silence within our historical understanding of shipboard insurrections? This is perhaps one of the easiest questions for us to consider, at least in this room, but again—going back to this notion of the seen and the unseen—adult black males are primarily referenced when we tease out the intricacies of slave ship mutinies. As noted earlier, I believe, by Deborah Willis, we even can look here and see a masculine depiction, even within this particular revolt. It is of course true to fact in that way, but . . . when I began to look at it even longer, I began to see women on this ship, but I think that’s in part because of how I approach the study of the trade.

I should also give the disclaimer that we have to almost even be careful when we privilege adults and [focus on] adult men and women. . . . My point here is not to discount that bound men were most times the primary instigators, but instead to push us to briefly speculate where and how black females fit into this history and, more rightly, in these instances of violent uprising. This is what I actually found myself appreciative of in looking at Woodruff’s work, because we see the visibility and also the invisibility of black females and black women within these Amistad murals. On one hand they’re there and then they almost disappear on the other. So some could argue that looking for and focusing on black females is [a subject] too buried in records or non-existent or unworthy of scholarly attention.

But for a historian continually lured by the gendered experiences of slavery, it is more than worthy to consider where and how all of these different captives coped with the shock of enslavement, including adult black men and adult black women, elderly captives, teenagers, children, the diseased and disabled. For our purposes today, although recognizing that these [other] histories exist in these watery spaces where the slave ships themselves became the archives . . . of human experience, I want to share the story of two women who, much like their male counterparts, boldly defied the boundaries of social control on two slave ships. Now, given the nature of slave trading sources, we do not know their names. Although unnamed in these surviving sources, one woman was boarded onto the ship Robert in 1781, while another woman was forced onto the ship Industry close to ten years later. While sold aboard the ship Robert, five captives, including the enslaved woman, planned to overthrow the ship’s crew . . . she was unbound on the main deck and was able to serve as a spy.

Once the crew was asleep, this woman successfully secured a hammer and [a number of other weapons]. On the day of the planned revolt, only the female and two other men followed through with this surprise attack; however, their efforts were quickly suppressed by the ship’s crew. Perhaps most compelling in this case, however, is not only the inclusion of a female captive, but moreover how she was reprimanded for her participation in this rebellion. The two males implicated were publicly whipped for their involvement, while the woman’s punishment was arguably more brutal than her male counterparts as she was “hoisted by the thumbs, whipped and slashed with knives before the other slaves until she died, whipped, slashed and murdered in a public fashion.” In many ways, this woman endured a triple punishment for her role in the attempted revolt.

Now, instead of serving as a spy, this other bound woman, sold aboard the English ship Industry in the early-mid-eighteenth century, . . . not only managed to smuggle gunpowder and ammunition through the hole leading down to where these black males are being held, but she likewise engaged in physical battle alongside some of her male shipmates. Shortly following the crew’s suppression of the revolt, several sailors decided that, because this female had been so badly scarred from her involvement in this uprising, she was deemed unfit for sail. And as a consequence, they hoisted her up to the foreyard arm in view of the other slaves and fired half a dozen balls through her body—they shot her, using her as an example to quell any other potential ungovernable captives. Unlike the woman aboard the Robert, the execution-like punishment this woman endured continued further, as the last shot that was fired cut the rope by which she was hung and she tumbled away into the sea. We are left to infer that given the predominance of traveling sharks, this woman’s bloodied and bullet-ridden body likely became food for any lurking sea creatures.

Yet, both women, by violently aligning themselves with black males in opposition against their enslavers, they countered and directly challenged prevailing misconceptions of docility and obedience continually assumed and projected onto black females during the entire era of the Atlantic slave trade. Bound men are regularly at the center of discussions of slave ship rebellions; however, we must bear in mind that black females were similarly unafraid to sacrifice their personal lives, not only for the good of the revolt, but also the liberation of their fellow shipmates.

. . . Ship revolts encapsulated a collective, behavioral language of resistance that is often difficult for us as contemporary audiences to fully reconstruct. . . . Violence became this unifying basis of collectivity, solidifying the lines of respective loyalty; . . . the entire ship, both the top deck and the levels beneath, became the battle lines upon which those enslaved coalesced as a community and seamen sought to defend themselves against these African instigators. Hence both groups, seamen and captives, boarded these slave ships as strangers among their ship cohort, yet upon instances of rebellion unified as respective armies to defend and protect their collective interests, albeit for profit or ultimate liberation.

So, in closing, the history of the Middle Passage ship revolts and the forcible movements of bound people out of Africa and into the Caribbean and into the Americas is a complicated history made up of a multitude of captive narratives still untapped in many ways. It is not about how many. It is not about formulas and metrics and datasets, but instead, in this moment, I would argue that it’s about the testimonies of survival, the trauma, the bloodshed, the scarred flesh. . . . We often marginalize the Middle Passage in the broader history of slavery, in some sense jumping off the coast of Africa and landing in the plantations, bypassing the very process that landed those enslaved people throughout all of the Americas. . . . So despite contemporary efforts by school officials and politicians to avoid, and thereby erase, this history out of curricula, out of textbooks, and out of the public memory, . . . this painful history will continue to haunt our nation until we begin to make greater strides in addressing . . . its direct connection to all of our lives. We’re all therefore forever indebted to the histories written, the poems and songs produced, and most of all, the artwork drawn and murals painted and offered for public consumption by artists much like—and including—Hale Woodruff, who invite us to engage and confront these historical depictions of this unending quest for freedom and power waged by African-descended people over their lives. Thank you.

Excerpts from a presentation by Sowande Mustakeem, Washington University.

Rising Up Symposium Video Playlist

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!