Blessed are the unlettered, for they are not burdened with theories of history.
Blessed are the poor, for they make the most of what they are given.
Blessed are the aged, for they can be forever young.
Blessed are the dead, for they are gone. We are on our own now. —Kerry James Marshall
Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) is regarded today as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. A black man born into slavery in Alabama, he was an eyewitness to history: the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and the steady rise of African American urban culture in the South. Traylor would not live to see the civil rights movement, but he was among those who laid its foundation. Starting around 1939—by then in his late eighties and living on the streets of Montgomery—Traylor made the radical steps of taking up pencil and paintbrush and attesting to…