Charles Wilbert White, Jr. was born April 2, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois. His mother was a generation away from slavery. White expressed his disgust toward his White grandfather who raped his grandmother and produced his mother as a result. His father was a Creek Indian who died when Charles was only eight years old. When he was seven, his mother bought him a set of oil paints that spurred his love for painting and drawing.
White became aware of what he referred to as “the differences between [Blacks] and Whites.” Even as a child, he was aware of the differences between himself and his White counterparts. Once he entered grade school, the differences between Blacks and Whites were even more apparent in the curriculum that was taught and merely in the way teachers looked at him.
White began working at the age of nine in order to help his mother financially. He was reminded of the differences between Blacks and Whites when he realized that certain jobs were reserved for Black people. He shined shoes and worked as a porter in various shops, sweeping and cleaning behind White customers.
In high school, White would often read about prominent Black figures who were ignored by the education system. When he would inquire about the Black figures he had discovered on his own, his teachers would silence him. As a result, he resented school and often ditched. In skipping school, he would go to the Art Institute of Chicago where he marveled at the galleries and would dream of one day becoming an artist.
While in high school, White and a fellow painter were hired to paint signs for various companies for $75 per week. White soon found other Black artists in Chicago who were part of a group called the Arts Graft Guild. He joined them at the age of 15 and his work was publicly seen for the first time in art exhibitions.
After finishing high school, White received a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduating college, he then became an art teacher at St. Elizabeth Catholic High School in order to support his artistic endeavors.
White then began working as an artist for the Works Progress Administration. After forming a union with other Black artists who wanted equal pay, he was incarcerated. Once he was released from jail, he returned to his artwork.
In 1938, White was hired by an affiliate of the Works Progress Administration, the Illinois Art Project. His work landed him an extended showing at the Chicago Coliseum during an exposition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment. Later that year, White’s first art show took place at Paragon Studios in Cincinnati.
in the 1940s, White began teaching at Dillard University. He then began teaching at the Otis Art Institute in 1965. He held that position until his death in 1979. His work is still revered among art enthusiasts to this day.
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