The 75th anniversary of John Steuart Curry’s “The Freeing of the Slaves” mural

"Freeing of the Slaves" mural

John Steuart Curry’s iconic mural, “The Freeing of the Slaves,” has provided quiet inspiration to generations of University of Wisconsin law students. The mural, which dominates the Law Library’s Quarles & Brady Reading Room, turns 75 this year. Completed in July 1942, the mural was commissioned to adorn the “new” Law Library reading room built just two years before.

The mural portrays Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation through “the contrasting elements of chaos and order, sunlight and storm,” according to art historian Laurence Schmeckebier. Amidst the chaos of war and death emerges a large central figure with arms outstretched leading a group of former slaves in a celebration of freedom. Created during World War II, Curry wrote of the mural: “I feel that in this painting I have made a work that is historically true, and I also feel it is prophetic of that which is to come.”

Curry mural in progress
While Curry worked on the mural, it was business as usual for the library: underneath the mural, surrounded by painters’ drop cloths, librarians continued to lend books and research assistance to law students at the circulation desk.

Originally destined for the US Department of Justice Building in 1936, the mural’s design was rejected by federal officials who told Curry that they feared “serious difficulties . . . might arise as a result of the racial implications of the subject matter.” However, the design caught the attention of then-Law School Dean Lloyd Garrison, great-grandson of famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: “When John Curry first showed me the sketch which he had made for ‘The Freeing of the Slaves,’ I thought it was one of the most impressive pictures I had ever seen.” Dean Garrison felt a strong connection to the work, writing: “I felt from the beginning that the mural would be appropriate for the law building . . . Here is one of the great events in our constitutional history, an event fashioned in the midst of a national crisis by a great lawyer-president. The mural not only symbolizes that event but proclaims in a noble and patriotic setting the dignity and freedom of all persons, however humble, in a democracy whose ideals of liberty are summed up and protected by the constitution.”

In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Law Library has compiled a collection of materials about the creation of the mural and its enduring presence through many years of change at the Law School. A limited number of color reprints of the mural, as depicted in Paul Reidinger’s Summer 1985 Gargoyle article, are available to Law School alumni upon request (to do so, please contact the Law Library).

By Bonnie Shucha