“I am interested in creating a style that is much more powerful, that will take in the technical end and at the same time will say what I have to say. Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent. If I could write, I would write about it. If I could talk, I would talk about it. Since I paint, I must paint about it.”
Charles Wilbert White was born in Chicago in 1918. When he was a child, his mother would drop him off at the public library or Art Institute of Chicago while she ran errands. These early experiences instilled a love of reading and art that she encouraged, buying a set of oils for him when he was seven. White also took regular trips to Mississippi, where he learned the history of his family and fell in love with southern African American culture. Although White was spared the Jim Crow laws of the south, he still had to contend with Northern racism. In 1934 and 1935, he won scholarships to study art, and both times, when White and his mother showed up to claim them, they were told the scholarships were no longer available to Charles. Finally, in 1937, White did receive his scholarship for the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year, he joined the WPA, and from 1939 to 1940, he worked on Five Great American Negroes, a five-by-twelve-foot canvas depicting Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver. He was also commissioned by the Associated Negro Press to create A History of the Negro Press, and three of his artworks were included in the Library of Congress exhibition The Art of the American Negro.
A Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942 enabled White to study at the Art Students League in New York and to travel throughout the south, doing research and making studies for his mural The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America. With funds from an additional Rosenwald, White spent 1943 creating the mural at the Hampton Institute (now, Hampton University), where he befriended Viktor Lowenfeld and John Biggers. After being drafted into the US Army in 1944, White contracted tuberculosis and spent nearly two years convalescing in a hospital in Beacon, NY. Once he was well, he traveled to Mexico and spent a year studying lithography at the Taller de Gráfica Popular. The following year, the American Contemporary Art (ACA) Gallery in New York mounted his first solo exhibition, a series of works depicting the strength and beauty of real and archetypal African American women. In 1949, he became a co-founder of the Committee for the Negro Arts.