hale woodruffs 1949 mural portrays black people in ways that segregated media ignore
Hale Woodruff’s 1949 mural portrays Black people in ways that segregated media ignore.
PHOTO © Robin Dunitz

Because more women, Blacks, Latinx people, Asian Americans, and Native Americans have become historians, there has been an upheaval in the study of American history. For some, this has caused anger and frustration. However, these new historians challenge the cherished myths promoted by school curricula, film, and literature.

They weren’t around when my generation was receiving an education. For the study of Black history, we relied on Black newspapers that were powerful at the time. Our movements were limited in segregated cities, in the North and the South. We didn’t visit museums or galleries, unsure of what kind of reception we’d receive. Often the reception was humiliating. Visiting Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the 1950s, I was turned away when seeking entrance to the city’s main library.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

I didn’t become aware of a Black painting tradition until I moved to New York City in 1962. It was painters like the late Joe Overstreet who introduced me to this tradition. I also met Black painters who are now part of the canon.

One of those painters was Hale Woodruff (1900–1980), and California provided him the creative space he needed. Influenced by the Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, Woodruff, like some Black historians and novelists, included images in his works that were absent from the official media narrative, which continues to show Black life as degraded. In 1949, he collaborated with artist Charles Alston on two panels: Alston’s Exploration and Colonization and his own Settlement and Development (above), which is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Alston.

These panels were commissioned by the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company in Los Angeles, whose headquarters was designed by Black architect Paul R. Williams (1894–1980). Woodruff’s mural shows Blacks in a different light from the ones to which we’re accustomed. They are builders, journalists, statesmen, soldiers, and whalers. One figure is shown delivering mail for the Pony Express. Another carries a sign that reads “Let Us Own Homes,” still an issue as Blacks continue to be discriminated against by banks.•

Ishmael Reed’s latest novel is The Terrible Fours.