Black Then: Spotlight on Charles Wilbert White

While a Chicago native, Charles W. White, Jr. was a seminal creator in the Los Angeles art scene for decades. 

Born in 1918 into a working-class black family, White was also surrounded immediately by upheaval and movement. His arrival was one year ahead of the 1919 race riots that tore apart Chicago’s black homesteads and at the crest of the Great Migration’s earlier waves. White’s family originated from Mississippi, and he often traveled down South via train to visit his mother’s sisters during the summer where he was exposed to Southern black culture and folklore.

While White’s talent was recognized early on, and even though his family lacked the extra funds to keep him in traditional supplies on a regular basis, White was afforded the opportunity to study at Chicago’s prestigious Art Institute. While there, he questioned that lack of Negro representation and challenged the status quo with his own contributions. Despite his obvious promise as a young artist, he was repeatedly denied additional opportunities due to his race.

Edwin Rosskam spent three weeks photographing the African American experience in Southside Chicago in 1941. Image via the Library of Congress.

It’s easy to imagine White could’ve quit the arts, especially at the height of the Great Depression, when menial work would’ve been more plentiful in bigger cities. He continued undaunted though unsure of his career path, even painting signs at fourteen. All the while, his political and social awareness grew as he studied Alain Locke and befriended prominent Negro contemporary artists of his era: 

“…White lived in Chicago, New York, and, finally, Los Angeles over the course of his career, and was a critical member of creative communities in each of these cities. He counted photographer Gordon Parks, painter Jacob Lawrence, and singer and actor Harry Belafonte as friends and colleagues. From his earliest days as a mature artist, White was also a gifted and dedicated teacher, and David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall were among his many students. His practice of making rigorous, socially committed art affected these younger artists, some of whom continue his legacy in their own work…” 

White eventually settled in California with his second wife Frances Barrett. He remained dedicated to access to the arts for the common man and was a steadfast champion of visibility for black social issues, and workers’ rights:

“…His meticulously executed drawings and paintings speak of and affirm the humanity and beauty of African American people and culture. Common subjects of his artwork included scenes depicting African-American history in the United States, socio-economic struggles, human relationships, and portraits…”

In California, White’s work was well recognized and there is both an elementary school named for him associated with LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) as well as an active public park that’s still open in his honor, the only American artist with this distinction. White died in 1979, though his legacy lives on.

  1. Charles White | MoMA 2. Charles White, African-American & Social Realist Artist, Heritage Gallery

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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.

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