Bill Traylor was many things: a slave, a sharecropper, a father, and one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century. He lived in Alabama through the most chaotic and violent period in our history when everything in society and nature conspired to drag powerless people like Traylor under.
But, instead of disappearing, Bill Traylor soared.
Near the end of his long life, Traylor sat down, by the corner of Monroe Street, in the heart of Montgomery’s black business district and drew. It was between 1939-1942, working with astonishing patience and focus, that Traylor created over 1000 works of singular genius that today still bear witness to his ordinary, extraordinary life and times.
If ever there was a story about the redemptive power of art and transcendence of the human spirit, this is it.
Who was Bill Traylor?
Bill Traylor was born in 1853 on an Alabama cotton plantation owned by John Traylor in Dallas County, Alabama. Born into slavery, Traylor was about twelve years old when the Civil War ended, ending his legal servitude but not the basics of his way of life: he continued to live near his birthplace for another six decades, working as a farm laborer and contract farmer for the Traylor family until the late 1920s. Aging and alone, he moved to Montgomery and worked odd jobs in the segregated black neighborhood.
A decade later, in his late eighties, too weak to work, Traylor became homeless and started to draw and paint, both past memories from plantation days and current scenes of a radically changing culture in which black people had their own businesses, schools, churches, clothing and hair styles, music, food-ways and more. Traylor witnessed profound social and political change. Raised by parents who had lived their whole lives as slaves, Traylor came of age with the first generation of African American citizens.
His life ultimately spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation and the Great Migration—which led most of his children away from the South. Traylor’s generation had little and struggled inestimably; yet they stood together, persisted, and laid the groundwork for the coming era of Civil Rights.
Traylor’s story is the ultimate American story. Having never learned to read or write, Traylor created his own visual language as a means to communicate and record the stories of his life. Traylor had an amazing way with color and is often compared to jazz and the blues; he translated an oral culture into something original, powerful, culturally rooted and entirely personal.
But music and folktales were much better at surviving than physical objects that demanded care, and Traylor’s art is the sole body of work made by a black artist of his era to survive. He made over a thousand drawings and paintings on discarded cardboard between 1939 and 1942; this body of work is truly a national treasure.