Celebrating 75 Years of UW Law Library’s “The Freeing of the Slaves” mural

This year marks the 75th anniversary of UW Law School’s iconic mural, The Freeing of the Slaves. The mural, which was completed in July 1942, was created by artist John Steuart Curry, who is considered one of the most important American Regionalist artists of the 20th century.

The Law Library invites you to our Quarles & Brady Reading Room to view the mural this anniversary year.  We’ve created several displays celebrating the mural, including a nearby display case containing rejected designs and early photos of the mural and a website with a bibliography and photographs of the mural through the decades.  UW Law School alumni can look for an article celebrating the 75th anniversary of the mural in an upcoming issue of the Gargoyle.

A few interesting facts about Curry’s The Freeing of the Slaves:

The mural was originally commissioned for the federal Department of Justice building in 1935 but officials rejected it because they feared that “serious difficulties… might arise as a result of the racial implications of the subject matter”

Fortunately, Curry’s design caught the attention of then Law School Dean Lloyd K. Garrison who wanted it for the “new” Law Library reading room dedicated in 1940:

“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.”

The mural was completed in several phases as described by Curry:

“I made a life sized drawing in my studio… then fastened this drawing in place on the wall in the library reading room…  I traced through [the drawing] with a pencil… and proceeded to paint from a scaffolding directly onto the linen, which now contained the black and white outline of the design. There are really two complete paintings. The first was in tempera. The second, superimposed on the first, was in oil.”

The library circulation desk was originally located directly underneath the mural.  According to then Law Library Director, Maurice Leon:

“a scaffolding was stretched across the north end of the reading room and artist-in-residence, John Steuart Curry, sat or walked on it while painting his giant mural, The Freeing of the Slaves.  Underneath, surrounded and enfolded by painter’s drop cloths, the circulation and reserve desk attendants carried on business as usual.”

For more information about the creation of the mural and how it came to be at the UW Law School, see the wall placard on display in the Quarles & Brady Reading Room.  The original placard manuscript is also available on our website.