William “Bill” Traylor was an African-American self-taught artist from Lowndes County, Alabama. Born into slavery, Traylor spent the majority of his life after emancipation as a sharecropper. However, today Traylor is regarded as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century.
Traylor was born in April 1853, in Benton, Alabama to Sally and Bill Calloway, both were slaves on the plantation of George Hartwell Traylor.
Traylor’s career as an artist began late in life after raising around twenty children. In 1909, he left the farm life in Montgomery County at the age of 75. He lived in a small shack and found work in a shoe store help support himself.
Rheumatism prevented him from continuing to work shoe store, because of this Traylor was forced to be homeless. He did receive a small public assistance stipend but it was not enough to keep a roof over his head. At night he slept the backroom of the Ross-Clayton Funeral Home. During the day, he camped out on Monroe Street. It was there, at the center of Montgomery’s African American community, that Traylor began his artistic career.
Traylor’s work was first noticed by a young white artist who began to visit Traylor’s block to observe him working.
Soon after this encounter Shannon began to supply Traylor with poster paints, brushes, and drawing paper. A friendship soon transpired. In February 1940, New South, a cultural center that Shannon founded, launched the exhibit, “Bill Traylor: People’s Artist.” It included a hundred of Traylor’s drawings. Nevertheless, despite numerous reviews in local newspapers, none of Traylor’s works were sold.
Traylor made his New York debut in 1942. Traylor did not live to see the civil rights movement, but he was among those who laid its foundation. On October 23, 1949, Traylor died in Montgomery. Traylor’s life and art were the subject of a 2012 children’s book, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, written by Don Tate and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.