Artist: Prentiss Taylor
Title: Scottsboro Limited, from the portfolio Scottsboro
Dimensions: 10 7/8 x 13 7/8 in.
Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1992.57
In Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931, nine young Black men, ranging in age from 13 to 19 years old, were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train. Although the charges against them were not credible, all except for one 13-year-old were swiftly convicted and sentenced to the death by an all-white jury. Over the next few years, there were retrials, and some of the convictions were overturned or dismissed; some of the defendants were eventually paroled. Nevertheless, the case, known as “The Shame of America,” became a symbol of the injustice and persistent racism in the United States.
The Scottsboro case quickly drew national and international attention and was a rallying point for left-wing artists and writers. Prentiss Taylor was a young, white artist and a member of the New York chapter of the John Reed Club—a group of socially committed, progressive artists and writers. Like many of his colleagues, Taylor was interested in using art as a means for social action, addressing such issues as poverty, racism, and judicial and political corruption. Many members of the club took up the cause of the Scottsboro defendants, especially in prints that were reproduced and circulated in periodicals, such as New Masses and Crisis. This particular print was originally produced as part of series of illustrations for poems addressing the Scottsboro case by the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, with whom Taylor collaborated on several occasions. Together, the text and illustrations were meant to raise awareness of the trial and to expose the unfair and racially motivated judgments against the defendants. The poems and images also appeared as a stand-alone pamphlet titled Scottsboro Limited, published in 1932. Although the pamphlet did not sell well, Hughes had written to Taylor that he would want any proceeds to go “toward either the comfort or the defense of the Scottsboro boys.”
In Scottsboro Limited Taylor used modernist imagery with a spiritual inflection to evoke empathy for the falsely accused defendants. Although many photographs of the Scottsboro Boys appeared in newspapers, Taylor used generalized faces to convey universality and a deep sense of humanity. In the lithograph, which also became the cover image for the pamphlet, Taylor shows nine figures atop a boxcar. The viewer looks up slightly to the figures, who are huddled close together, creating a unified mass. Within the group, five are facing in the direction of the viewer with eyes downcast, appearing resigned to their fate. The group in the back looks off in the distance, their arms raised as if they are appealing to a higher power for mercy and justice. The cross-like telephone poles can be seen as allusions to their perceived status as martyrs, forecasting their fate. The burst of light behind them signals a spiritual aura, reminding us of halos that appear in depictions of Christian saints in Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
Taylor’s image of the Scottsboro case, paired with Hughes’s spare and powerful language, became an indictment against racism that was rampant in society and especially in the judicial system. Along with the other prints in the series, Scottsboro Limited, is an example of the belief that art can play a role in repairing society.
– Contributed by Corinne Granof, Academic Curator
- Langston Hughes, Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse, illustrations by Prentiss Taylor (Golden Stair Press, 1932).
- Bruce Kellner, Working Friendship: A Harlem Renaissance Footnote, The Lithographs of Prentiss Taylor: A Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Ingrid Rose and Roderick S. Quiroz (Fordham University Press, 1996).
- Harry Salpeter, “About Prentiss Taylor,” Coronet 5 (April 1939): 134–42.
- Lynn Barstis Williams, “Images of Scottsboro, Southern Cultures 6, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 50–67.
Scottsboro Limited is among the ten prints selected as part of the Block Museum’s engagement with the 2020 One Book One Northwestern selection Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. This selection of artworks from The Block’s collection reflects on themes, events, and ideas from Just Mercy. Works by ten artists—contemporary and historic—amplify and deepen our engagement with the book by bringing different backgrounds and perspectives into dialogue with it. The artworks address such issues as systemic racism, discrimination, and failures of the justice system, alongside artworks that allow us to reflect on racial and economic injustice and social inequities through a broader lens.
Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences