As a young art student in Indianapolis, Hale Woodruff was among the first artists to receive support from the Harmon Foundation, an organization devoted to recognizing African-American achievement. The publicity and prestige that attended his 1926 award helped him raise money for his first trip to Europe. An aspiring modernist, he spent four years abroad, most of it in Paris, where he took special interest in the paintings of Cézanne and the Musée de l'Homme's collections of African sculpture; he also sought out the elderly expatriate painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first black American elected to the National Academy of Design in New York.
Woodruff returned to the United States in 1931 and joined the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, a liberal arts school for black women that is now part of Atlanta University Center. He spent the Depression teaching in segregated Atlanta, where he mounted continuous shows by black artists in the college library, acquired five thousand teaching slides with help from the Carnegie Foundation, and challenged the High Museum of Art to admit him and his students to its galleries.
In the summer of 1934 Woodruff spent six weeks in Mexico as an unpaid assistant to mural painter Diego Rivera, the leader of a vigorous, revolutionary public-art movement in that country. When Americans were called upon to decorate schools, post offices, and courthouses for the New Deal's public art projects, Mexican muralists like Rivera were their mentors. Rivera's monumental paintings glorifying the history of the Mexican people served as a practical guide for Woodruff's work.
The Chrysler's paintings were probably made not long after Woodruff's return from Mexico, during a period when he also painted murals for an Atlanta high school and the Atlanta School of Social Work. Stylistically and thematically they evoke his most famous project, the 1936-39 Amistad murals for Talladega College in Alabama. That three-panel series documents an 1839 slave ship rebellion and ensuing events, including a trial that advanced the abolitionist cause in the United States.
The compositions in the Chrysler's four panels, like the Amistad murals, are built around powerful, stylized figures enacting violent yet stirring events; the tightly compressed narratives are enriched with detail drawn from historical accounts, engravings, and earlier paintings. Each panel illustrates the heroism of African-Americans in battle. The first, The Death of Crispus Attucks, represents the martyrdom of an African-American at the 1770 Boston Massacre, a prelude to the Revolutionary War. Battle of Lake Erie and Negroes with Jackson at New Orleans are episodes in the War of 1812. The final panel, Sergeant Carney and the Death of General Shaw, documents the storming of Fort Wagner in South Carolina by the black soldiers of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War. The paintings' irregular proportions indicate that they may have been designed to fit a specific location, but they are not mentioned in the published literature on Woodruff's career, and no further documentation has yet come to light.