Charles White, Chicago’s Native Son

Charles White, Spiritual, 1941. Oil on canvas, 40″ x 30″, South Side Community Art Center, Chicago.

Among the treasures of the South Side Community Art Center collection is Spiritual, painted by Charles White in 1941. Spiritual was one of the last works made by White before he left Chicago for New Orleans.[1]

For artists like White, in the 1930s and 1940s, Chicago was home to a burgeoning arts scene that combined artistic vision with progressive politics. With a growing interest in African American history and culture inspired by the writings of Alain Locke, artists in Chicago formed the Arts and Crafts Guild, a collective of artists that shared techniques and skills in spite of limited access to artistic training. They met regularly to discuss art and politics, raise funds for their artistic pursuits, and organize exhibitions. The youngest member of the Arts and Crafts Guild at age fourteen, White found mentors in older artists, including George E. Neal, Eldzier Corter, and Charles Sebree. Neal in particular was dedicated to creating a community of artists and hosted regular, informal art lessons in his studio based on his training in courses at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later, the South Side Community Art Center, established through the sustained efforts of this local community of artists and intellectuals, became the nexus for politically-engaged artistic activity.[2]

After attending Englewood High School, White was awarded a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he completed a rigorous two-year course in one year.[3] Throughout, White continued to be an active participant at the Center. He served as chairman of the Artists’ Committee before the Center opened its doors in 1940. As chairman, White proposed to organize an exhibition and auction of artworks in the fall of 1939 to help with fundraising for Center’s founding.[4] He also taught art classes and helped to initiate the Negro People’s Theater with Margaret Burroughs and Bernard Goss.[5] Referring to the arts scene based out at the Center, White later stated, “The way the community structure was, if you were interested in any of the arts you eventually knew everybody else, every other Black brother and sister who was interested in the arts. We developed a social relationship and a very close-knit one.”[6]

Life drawing class taught by Charles White at the South Side Community Center in Chicago, between 1938 and 1941. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

At the first Artists and Models Ball in 1939, White exhibited a partially completed mural, Five Great American Negroes.[7] The mural depicts important African American figures including Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver. White’s artwork would continue to be defined by an interest in the historical struggle and the daily lives of African Americans.

Charles White, at work in his studio, holds a finished sketch of “Five Great American Negroes.” Chicago Defender, October 21, 1939.

Even after White left Chicago, his work continued to be exhibited at the Center. In 1966, when the annual art auction that White initiated 27 years earlier was reinstituted to fund the Center’s ambitious programming, artworks by White were among those exhibited and sold.[8] In 1970, the Center honored White during a visit to Chicago with a reception and exhibition. The exhibition included a number of White’s paintings hung alongside works from the Center’s collection representing the wide range of artistic trajectories in African American art.[9]

Charles White’s work and his place in the dynamic community of artists at the South Side Community Art Center demonstrate the potentials for the interconnections among cultural and political activism.

[1] Andrea D. Barnwell, Charles White, David C. Driskell Series in African American Art (Petaluma: CA Pomegranate Communications, 2003).

[2] Stacy I. Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

[3] Doris E. Saunders, “S.S. Art Center Reception for Charles White,” Chicago Daily Defender, February 24, 1970, 18.

[4] Sponsor’s Committee Meeting Notes, May 15, 1939, SSCAC, Part I, Box 1 (1938-1945), Folder 3, SSCAC, Chicago, Illinois.

[5] Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism.

[6] Sharon G. Fitzgerald, “Charles White in Person,” Freedomways, 20 (Fall 1980): 158-62, quoted in Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism, 53.

[7] “Artists and Models Ball Draws Capacity Crowd,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 16.

[8] Herbert Nipson, Auction Committee Chair, letter to “Art Patrons,” n. d.
, SSCAC, Part I, Box 4 (1957-1971) Folder 12, Chicago, Illinois.

[9] Theresa Fambro Hooks, “South Side Art Center to Honor Charles White ‘Dean of Black Art’,” Chicago Daily Defender, February 7, 1970, 21.

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