Our 5th Graders will be visiting the High Museum of Art next Wednesday, and one of the featured exhibits this season is the art Atlanta-based African American painter Hale Woodruff, who in 1938 painted a series of murals for Talladega College, one of the first black colleges in the US.

Three of Woodruff’s murals at Talladega memorialize the 1839 Amistad uprising, in which captured Africans from Sierra Leone mutinied against their captors, eventually taking their case to court (defended by John Adams). Ultimately, these would-be slaves won their freedom in what is often considered the first civil rights court case in US history. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow laws and segregation of the 1930s US, Woodruff’s art makes a powerful statement.

Keeping this in mind, I worked with the 5th grade teachers to plan an activity in the library where students could engage with some other examples of artwork that makes a political statement.

To prepare for the activity, I collected a variety of artwork for students to explore, including paintings, a quilt, graffiti, street murals, posters, poetry, and song lyrics created in the last century. Since 5th grade has been learning about segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, all the artwork we looked at was created to advocate for civil rights, and most of the artists were people of color.

When 5th grade visited the library last week, we started by exploring Hale Woodruff’s murals. Then the students divided into pairs to look at one piece of artwork and answer some open-ended questions: What do you think the artist or author was trying to say? What details stand out? How does this artwork relate to the time period when it was made? How does the artwork make you feel?

At the end of the session, since each pair of students had looked at a different piece of artwork, I projected all the pieces of art on the SMART Board and had each pair of kids share their impressions with the whole group.

During this activity, I did share some historical context and background information about the artists with students as they worked. However, I didn’t share my opinions about the art with students, because I wanted the kids to make their own interpretations and reach their own conclusions.

I’m going to let the outcome of this activity speak for itself by sharing with you the art that the students looked at along with transcripts of some of their comments. The reactions you’re about to read are students’ exact words. Besides combining reactions from the three classes, the only changes I made were grammatical edits.

Students’ response: “Unequal rights, lynchings, unfair treatment. Segregation. Jim Crow Laws. It makes me sad. No matter what, all of us are equal.”


Students’ response: “It makes me feel disgusted, sad, and disturbed. He was trying to impress upon people how bad things were for African Americans. Whites were slaughtering blacks. Why?!! It makes me feel angry that people let this happen.”


Students’ response: “The people in the back of the bus are black, and up front are whites. This makes me sad because it was during segregation and mad because people had to give up their seats. People were treated badly. Segregation was wrong.”


Students’ response: “He was trying to get us to remember the African Americans who have suffered. He is strong alongside the others. He was American, and he is saying that segregation will end. This makes me feel patriotic.”


Students’ response: “There are people from all around the world of different colors and religions. There shouldn’t be segregation. Freedom! Freedom! FREEDOM!!”


Students’ response: “Maya Angelou wanted us to remember the history of slavery and segregation and how it hurt many people. In When she wrote it, segregation had ended, but there was still discrimination. She is powerful, and other people should be powerful even in the toughest of times. This poem makes me feel powerful.”


Students’ response: “Kehinde Wiley made this in 2005, and he changed Napoleon to be black instead of white. He changed the way you look at history. Recreating art to make a point that we are all equal. This makes me feel proud, joyful, and imaginative. I love this so much!”


Students’ response: “She wanted us to remember. The art makes me feel sad because it shows bad things happening to people.”


Students’ response: “This is relatable. Dr. King stood for civil rights. This art was made in 2015, and there is still racism. Black lives always matter.”


Students’ response: “I see a white lady with black ladies together. Whatever color we are, we are still sisters. Everyone can be together. No matter what, stand up for yourself.”


Students’ response: “This was made now. It’s about police shootings and the lives of black people. Her message is sad and convincing. Nobody should have to worry about getting shot at by a police officer. Everyone should be treated the same. Black lives matter.”


Students’ response: “It is all very inspiring. These pictures are about rights for everyone. They make us want to pay more attention to people who are different and to stand up and fight for people’s rights. The President needs to care more about Muslims, black people, Mexicans, and women. People need to protect each other!”