Hale Woodruff was born in 1900 in Cairo, Illinois. After high-school he drew political cartoons part-time for the black newspaper, the "Indianapolis Ledger". His art studies included the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis; Art Institute of Chicago; Harvard's Fogg Museum School; and Académie Moderne in Paris with Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1927.
After developing his work while living in Paris, he returned to the US in 1931. He established the art department at Atlanta University in the depths of the Depression, beginning a forty-year teaching career. Woodruff created the Atlanta Annuals, exhibitions for black artists. In the late 1930s, he painted black history murals for Atlanta's Talledega College Slavery Library that reflect the influences of the great mural painters of the age, Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. Woodruff had recently studied in Mexico with Rivera. Woodruff may be best known for these works, but the artist also produced, at this time, prints of black lynchings and poverty.
In 1943, Woodruff went to New York City for two years on a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation. Though he would return for a year to his Atlanta teaching position, this essentially marked the end of that experience and the start of his life in New York as an abstract painter and member of the faculty at New York University. He would retire from NYU in 1967.