Charles H. Alston

Charles H. Alston (1907-77), born in Charlotte, North Carolina, was an African-American artist and educator. He grew up in New York and received a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University in 1929. Alston played an active role in the African-American cultural and intellectual flowering of the 1920s and 30s known as the Harlem Renaissance. Following the depression, he worked for the Federal Arts Project of the New Deal’s Work Progress Administration and designed, among others, the murals of Harlem hospital.

During World War II Alston was employed by the Office of War Information (OWI) and created more than one hundred propagandistic drawings aimed at an African-American audience. They were designed exclusively for publication in black weekly newspapers and meant to address specific, controversial issues in the black community while garnering African-American support for the war. Most of these drawings neglect the continued reality of discrimination African Americans experienced on a daily basis and portray an American war consensus indiscriminate of skin color. As a consequence, some of the black press, notably the Chicago Defender, did not print Alston’s OWI drawings but preferred to feature more critical art throughout World War II. After the war, Alston continued his work as an educator, becoming the first African-American instructor at the Art Students League of New York (1950-1971) and the Museum of Modern Art (1956). He later worked as a full professor at the City University of New York.

Further Reading

– Alston, Charles Henry: Portraits in Black: Charles Alston’s Drawings of African Americans (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992).

– Amana, Harry: “The Art of Propaganda: Charles Alston’s World War II Editorial Cartoons for the Office of War Information and the Black Press,” in: American Journalism, 21(2), 79-111.

– Hanson, Jayna M.: “About the Charles Henry Alston Papers, A Finding Aid to the Charles Henry Alston Papers, 1924-1980, in the Archives of American Art,” Smithsonian Institution.