Black History Network Mixer in Los Angeles

The 2011 Black History Network Mixer was held on February 24, 2011 at the Cicada Club, the historic 1928 art deco James Oviatt Building, an architectural design gem in downtown L.A. (entrance shown).

L.A.'s Black History Network Mixer was the co-sponsored event of the following five organizations:

During the course of the evening, the mixer drew a huge turn out among LA.'s black professionals. Attendees included Langston Bar Association President Gilda Clift Breland, Esq. The Langston Bar Association's 2011 theme under Breland's leadership is timely described as "Advocating for Citizens of the World."

Linda R. Roseborough, president of the California Association of Black Lawyers (CABL), was also in attendance at the mixer. Roseborough spread the word regarding CABL's 34th Annual Conference that will be held Thursday, April 28th through Sunday, May 1st, 2011 at the Omni Hotel in downtown L.A. Many of the attorneys in attendance were excited that this annual conference of the state's black lawyers will be hosted in Los Angeles, California. 

Professor George Wilberforce Kakoma and the Uganda National Anthem

Prof. George Wilberforce Kakoma, musical composer of Uganda's national anthem

The exact date of George Wilberforce Kakoma's birth is not clear, but it’s believed that he was born between 1923 and 1925 in the Southern District of Masaka in Uganda and is a Muganda by tribe. Kakoma is credited with composing the national anthem of the Republic of Uganda.

There is something to be said about the role of a national anthem in galvanizing the spirit of a people newly formed as a nation. This is especially true for African nations during the period of rapid European decolonization. Kakoma's work is an example of the powerful role of music in developing national traditions and creating a sense of unity among people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

From 1894 to 1962, Uganda was ruled by Britain, which means it used to hoist the British Union Jack and used to sing the British National Anthem. As the struggle for independence intensified in Uganda, it became clear that the country was going to attain independence from the British Colonial masters and would need both a national anthem or a national flag that embodied its independence.

Image of national flag of Uganda

Prior to independence, a subcommittee for the creation of national anthem was set up. It was one of the three sub-committees established to deal with Uganda’s national symbols. 

Professor Senteza Kajubi was the chairman of the committees. The sub-committee organized a country-wide publicity campaign for original compositions. Ugandans were encouraged to submit their pieces.

“The compositions had to be short, original, solemn, praising and looking forward to the future,” said Professor Kajubi.

Many people participated in the music competition but the committee was not satisfied. Prof. Kajubi decided to seek help from George Wilberforce Kakoma, then a renowned inspector of schools and a music teacher in Masaka District to “save” the committee because they did not have a national anthem.

Photo: Professor George Wilberforce Kakoma

According to Kakoma, a strange tune rang continuously in his head at night, disrupting his sleep. He decided to wake up and put pen to paper.

“I sat down and looked through what I had ciphered during the night hours. I worked on those ideas till midday.”

The events leading to the composition of the anthem were summarized in the 2008 case filed by Prof George William Kakoma, then a graduate of Trinity College of Music and professor at the Durham University in London, Prof. George W. Kakoma v. The Attorney General (Civil Suit No.197 Of 2008) [2010] UGHC 40 (30 July 2010). Kakoma sued the government of Uganda for not rewarding his efforts up to the time of the case filing and the non payment of royalties arising from the playing of the national anthem. The case in part provided the following:
  1. That early in 1962 an open competition for the composing of our National Anthem was advertised.
  2. That no conditions were attached to the would-be winning entry.
  3. That his was declared the winner.
  4. That he was given a token of Shs.2,000/= as a mark of appreciation.
  5. That a year or two later, the government realizing this was copyright material, wrote asking him to surrender his copyright to them.
  6. That he referred the matter to his lawyers who responded and wrote back to the Government demanding a fee of 5000 only before he could sign off his copyright. That the political turmoil that followed left the matter unsettled until Idi Amin’s regime came to power.
  7. That in January 1975 he went into self-exile with his family and taught at Kenyatta University until NRA government came to power in 1986, when there was the chance to have the matter raised again.
  8. That the Ministry of Justice took up the matter and presented a Cabinet Memo which was turned down on a flimsy ground that compensating him would create a precedent.
The melody was composed by Prof. Kakoma but the lyrics (or words) were composed by Peter Wyngard, Kakoma’s personal friend and a lecturer at Makerere Institute of Education.

The development and resolution of this legal case in Uganda's courts also demonstrates important developments of the application of the rule of law generally, and the recognition of intellectual property rights specifically, in Uganda.

The National Anthem of Uganda

Oh Uganda may God uphold thee,

We lay our future in thy hand,
United free for liberty
Together we’ll always stand.

Oh Uganda the land of freedom,
Our love and labour we give,
And with neighbours all,
At our country’s call
In peace and friendship we’ll live

Oh Uganda the land that feeds us,
By sun and fertile soil grown,
For our own dear land,
We shall always stand,
The pearl of Africa’s crown.
With special thanks, this post has been prepared in great part by Moses G. Byaruhanga, Esq., Advocate/Attorney at Bar, Shonubi, Musoke & Co. Advocates in Uganda.

Henri Christophe of Haiti: King of the First Black Republic in the West

Painting of Henri Christophe, First King of the Republic of Haiti 
(b. October 8, 1767 – d. October 8, 1820). 

Little is known about Henri Christophe's (English: Henry Christopher ) boyhood. A great number of commentators report that he was born on Grenada island, a small nation in the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles, and was the son of a freeman. His father, also named Christophe, was reportedly transported from West African or Central West Africa to Saint Domingue, the former French colony now known as Haiti.

The Early Adult Life of Henri Christophe

In 1779, Christophe served with the Franch Forces as a drummer boy with a regiment described as gens de couleur (English: people of color or color people) in the American Revolution. The gens de couleur regiment fought at the Siege of Savannah at what is now the State of Georgia. Nine years later, in 1788, Georgia would become the fourth State admitted into the original thirteen colonies of the United States of America. France had lent troop assistance to the revolutionaries against England during the American Revolution.

After the American Revolution, Christophe returned to Saint Domingue where he is reported to have worked as a billiard-maker, mason, sailor, stable-hand and waiter. He also managed a hotel restaurant in Cap-Français, then the capital of Saint-Domingue, that served the wealthy French slave-holders from the surrounding plantations.

Enslaved Africans at Saint Domingue Defeat France’s Napoleon Bonaparte

Image of Brigadier General Henri Christophe of Haiti

By August 1791, the Africans at Saint Domingue had rebelled against their condition under France's tyranny of chattel slavery. The name they would adopt for their new nation would be "Haiti", a word translated from the language of the native inhabitants as "land of mountains". 

Christophe distinguished himself in the Haitian Revolution. While not as widely known as François-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture -- the great military leader that secured native control over Saint-Domingue from the France by 1797 -- Henri Christophe had distinguished himself by 1802 to become L'Ouverture's brigadier general.

Christophe fought alongside L'Ouverture in the north against the French. This included fighting against Spanish, British and French troops, all of whom had a strong interest in suppressing an uprising on the vast slave plantations established by the European colonialist over the Americas and Caribbean.

By June 1802, L'Ouverture was captured by agents of Napoleon Bonaparte for France. He was deported from the island to France. The revolution continued, however. After 13 years of military battle between the French colony, the Africans would win their independence in the year 1804. They distinguished themselves in history as the first independent black republic in the West.

The North-South Civil War in Haiti: Alexandre Pétion and Henri Christophe

In 1806, Christophe and the Haitian general Alexandre Pétion overthrew Jean Jacques Dessalines. Subsequently, a short civil war broke out between Christophe and Pétion. By February 1807, Haiti was divided between Christophe whom had clear charge over the North, and Alexander Pétion who led the South of the new country.

Christophe was elected president and served in that capacity from 1807 to 1811. On March 26, 1811, Henri proclaimed Haiti a republic nation and himself King, securing the title of Henri I. He served as Haiti's king from 1811 to 1820.

Citadelle Laferrière: The Grand Fortress near Cap-Haïtien

Aerial Image of La Citadelle La Ferriere in Haiti. A legacy of King Henri I of Haiti.
Some pictures are worth more than a thousand words. 

Henri Christophe is noted for his policy of construction and economic development in Haiti. Christophe was charged with transforming a slave-based economy into an effective and productive economy of a nation of newly freed people. While he improved the nations' infrastructure he is noted by some of the commentators for his labor policies which involved harsh work conditions and a transfer of a great amount of the wealth being controlled by the republic.

Photo of the Palace of Sans Souci in Haiti, commissioned by Henry Christophe in 1810 and completed in 1813. 
A trained mason, Christophe is noted for the construction of Sans Souci Palace and the fortress near Cap-Haïtien called Citadelle Laferrière. He also built six notable châteaux and eight palaces in the region. The Citadelle Laferrière is described as one of the great construction wonders of the era. In 1842, a major earthquake destroyed part of the fortress.

By 1820, an insurrection had broken out in the northern region of Haiti and Christophe suffered an incapacitating stroke and reportedly shot himself.

Statue of Christophe Henri, King Henri I of Haiti, at Champs de Mars in Port-au-Prince

Today, Christophe is revered as a hero among the Haitians and many within the African diaspora. Christophe's statue was raised at Champs de Mars in Port-au-Prince.

Sojourner Truth: Slavery Abolitionist and Women's Suffragist

Image of Pamphlet Poster of a Sojourner Truth Lecture 
(aka as Isabella Baumfree, Isabella Bomefree)
(Born: cir. 1797 - Died: November 26, 1883)

The exact date of her birth was not recorded. We only know that in the year 1797, among Dutch immigrants settled in the region now known as Ulster County, New York, an African child was born on the estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. One of 13 children born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, she was given the name Isabella Baumfree. As the story goes, this name gave her no hint of her mission so years later she renamed herself Sojourner Truth. Her life was a testament to this mission as a truth-teller.

Early Life of Sojourner Truth among the Hardenberg Dutch Settlers

Sojourner Truth's parents, the Baumfrees, were African slaves on the Hardenbergh plantation in Swartekill, New York. She spoke only Dutch until age nine when she was sold from her parents care to one Englishman named John Neely. The harshness of both her Dutch and English slave-masters would be told by Truth in many of her later anti-slavery speeches across the new nation. She underwent a number of transfers between slave-owners and suffered what she described as cruelties that one dare not imagine against a young African girl child enslaved in America.

Sojourner Truth and Slave Life in New York

In 1815, Truth said she fell in love with Robert, enslaved on a different plantation. The relationship was forbidden by both slavers. The two stole away visits despite the demands that they do no see each other. Robert's slave-master, aided by his son, followed Robert on one visit to see Truth. She reported that Robert sustained "bruising and mangling [of] his head and face" and was dragged away. Truth had a daughter that she named Diane soon thereafter.

By 1817, Sojourner Truth had been sold to John Dumont of New Paltz, New York. she was forced to marry an older African named Thomas. They had four children: Peter (1822), James (who died young), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826). Truth said that she continued working for Dumont until she felt she had completed any obligation she may have had to him.

Photo of Sojourner Truth
"I did not run off, for I thought that wicked," said Sojourner Truth, describing her leaving with her youngest daughter Sophia from the Dumont plantation in New York , "but I walked off, believing that to be all right."
She soon set plans to secure her youngest son Peter who had been loaned by Dumont to another slaver who had then sold the five-year-old child to slave-owners in the State of Alabama. With the help of the anti-slavery Quakers, Truth filed a court petition in the State of New York pleading with the court to grant the return of her son. There was great anti-slavery in New York at the time, as the state legislation was passed in 1827 legally abolishing slavery.

Sojourner Truth won and her son Peter was soon returned to New York.

Sojourner Truth, Free Woman of Color in America: Abolitionist and Suffragist

Pamphlet Card with Sojourner Truth Photo

While living in the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenens, Truth had a life-changing religious experience. She started to speak in public assemblies. She became known as a gifted preacher. She joined the Progressive Friends, an organization established by the Quakers, which pressed forward the cause of abolishing slavery throughout America. Truth also became active in the Union's efforts during the Civil War. She helped enlist black troops. Her grandson James Caldwell served in the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts.

"In 1864, she worked among freed slaves at a government refugee camp on an island in Virginia and was employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C.," according to Women in History: Living vignettes of notable women from U.S. history. "In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe's article "The Libyan Sibyl" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly; a romanticized description of Sojourner."

At the end of the Civil War, Truth worked on behalf of the Freedman's Hospital in Washington through the Freedman's Relief Association.

In 1867, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. While unsuccessful in her efforts, for several years she lobbyed the U.S. federal government land in the Western states for former African slaves. Illness began to reduce her speaking tours. In 1879, she spent a year in Kansas city to help settling African migrants she called "Exodusters". In addition to racial and gender equality issues, Truth campaigned against capital punishment and called for temperance.

Image of Sojourner Truth

On November 26, 1883, Sojourner Truth was surrounded by her family at her death bed. She was 86 years old when she died surrounded by her family in Battle Creek, Michigan. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, next to her grandson's gravesite. More than 200 years later, her legacy as a truth-keeper continues to ignite the imagination of the new nation for which she found herself in service. Soujourner Truth lived during times of great change.

Image of observers at the Sojourner Truth statute in
Battle Creek, Michigan, USA
(Photo: Marydell/Flickr)

Photo: U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama applauds on April 28, 2009
at the unveiling of the Sojourner Truth bronze bust in Emancipation Hall in Washingtno D.C.
(Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)

"I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the first lady of the United States of America," said Michelle Obama at the April 28, 2009 commemorative ceremony unveiling the Sojourner Truth bronze bust by sculptor Artis Lane. "Now many young boys and girls, like my own daughters, will come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them."

Sojourner Truth's Famous Oration: "Ain't I a Woman?"

In 1851, Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech before the Women's Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio. Several ministers were in attendance. Truth rose from her seat and spoke the following words before the audience:
"Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? 
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. 

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say."

George Washington Carver Exhibit Opens at Pink Palace Museum March 12, 2011

Museum Volunteers Wanted for the Upcoming
George Washington Carver Exhibit in Memphis

Volunteers who participate in the “George Washington Carver” Exhibit that will run March 12, 2011 - July 4, 2011 at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee can share information on the life and work of an extraordinary man. Born into slavery, George Washington Carver used his gifts to become a groundbreaking scientist, educator and humanitarian. Volunteers will talk to students and visitors about crop rotation, organic farming, plant-based fuels, medicines and everyday products. They will broaden their own knowledge and be a part of making history, science and nature come alive for our visitors and the wide variety of students that come to the Museum.

Those wanting to make a difference supporting educational opportunities with children and families in the Mid-South are only required to volunteer two 3 ½ hour shifts each month during the George Washington Carver exhibit run, March 12 - July 4, 2011. We offer weekday or weekend volunteer opportunities. Volunteers can train on either Thursday, March 10 or Saturday, March 12 from 9 a.m. – 12 noon. To sign up as a volunteer, please email or call 320-6438 by March 1, 2011. To obtain a volunteer application or get further information go to our website:

Patrice Lumumba: First Prime Minister of the Congo

Photo of Patrice Émery Lumumba
(July 2, 1925– January 17, 1961)

Patrice Émery Lumumba (aka Patrice Hemery Lumumba) was born July 2, 1925 in Onalua, Katakokombe, Kasai Province in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of four sons, Lumumba was a member of the Tetela tribal group. His education included missionary school training. After completing his education, he passed the postal clerk exam and began to work in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville). In 1951, Lumumba married Pauline Opangu and they would go on to have five children: François, Patrice Junior, Julienne, Roland and Guy-Patrice Lumumba.

Photo of a youthful Patrice Lumumba in the Belgian-Congo

By 1955, Lumumba began to enter political life. He became a regional leader for the Cercles of Stanleyville and joined the Liberal Party of Belgium where he served as editor and distributor of information. While traveling in Belgium that same year, Lumumba was arrested by the colonial government police and charged with embezzling post office funds. In July 1956, Lumumba was released after serving 12 months of a two-year sentence.

By 1958, Lumumba had re-entered political life and began to organize for Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). In December 1958, he represented the MNC as president at the All-African Peoples' Conference held in Accra, Ghana, hosted by Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah.

Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the Republic of the Congo

By October 1959, Lumumba was again arrested by the Belgian colonial government on charges of inciting anti-colonial riots in Stanleyville. He was sentenced to six months in prison for his anti-colonial activism. While in Lumumba was in prison, the MNC participated as a political party in the Belgian-Congo elections held in December of 1959. Lumumba was released before the MNC won the May 1960 election.

Lumumba, age 34 years old, was announced as the Belgian Congo's first prime minister. Joseph Kasa-Vubu was named president. On June 30, 1960, the country’s new leadership declared independence from the Belgian colonial rule. In an Independence Day ceremony for the newly named Republic of the Congo, King Baudouin spoke first, urging the Congolese to remain under the leadership of Belgium. Lumumba responded, in part, in his speech as follows:
"For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force." 
Unrest in the New Republic

Photo of Patrice Lumumba

Lumumba's speech became a media sensation in the West. Dissent within the army arose soon after Reports arose about military unrest, looting and European flight. By July 11, 1960, Moïse Tshombe declared himself the regional premier of the Katanga province. Tshombe was supported by the Belgian government and European mining firms with interest in rubber, copper and other minerals.

UN troops arrived, but did not move to suppress the Katanga rebellion. Lumumba soon sought Soviet military aid. President Kasa-Vubu, however, wanted a more moderate political approach and sought to remove Lumumba as prime minister. Lumumba declared the Presidential act illegal and sought Senate and Parliament action to declare President Kasa-Vubu‘s removal. The country was torn over the warring Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba political faction.
Joseph Mobutu’s Rise to Power and the Murder of Lumumba

Photo: A young Joseph Désiré Mobutu rolls up his sleeves
during a speech in December 1965 in Leopoldville, Congo

On September 14, 1960, Lieutenant General Joseph Désiré Mobutu (later known as Mobutu Sese Seko) organized a coup that deposed the divided nation. Lumumba was placed under house arrest, but he soon stole away to Stanleyville, organizing among his Haut-Congo supporters. On December 1, 1960, Lumumba was captured in Port Francqui by Mobutu’s troops and flown to Kinshasa (then Leopoldville).

The Soviet Union demanded his release and called upon the U.N. Security Council to act. U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld called for due process of law; on December 14, 1960, however, in a 8-2 vote, the Soviet Union's resolution was defeated. Lumumba was transferred to the Katanga Province under Mobutu‘s leadership.

On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was restrained and flown to Lubumbashi (then Elizabethville). That same day, Patrice Lumumba, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito were reportedly lined before a firing squad, according to Belgian reports. No due process was afforded those executed. While various accounts are reported, the true nature and facilitators of his murder, however, have never been definitively explained.

Photo of Congo leader Mobutu Sese Seko conversing with U.S. President Richard Nixon

In February 2002, the Belgian government released an official apology to the Congolese people. In a thousand page report, the government admitted to failure of a "moral responsibility" and "an irrefutable portion of responsibility in the events that led to the death of Lumumba." 

Lumumba’s Murder Leads to International Protests in Europe 

After Patrice Lumumba's assassination, protestors clashed with Belgian embassies and local police in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and at Trafalgar Square in London, UK. Prior to Lumumba's imprisonment, he had arranged for his wife, Pauline, and their children to move to Egypt.

“ We must move forward, striking out tirelessly against imperialism," said Che Guevara in 1964, reflecting on the life of Lumumba. "From all over the world we have to learn lessons which events afford. Lumumba’s murder should be a lesson for all of us.”

That same year, Malcolm X declared Patrice Lumumba "the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent."

African Freedom Fighter and Pan Africanist 

The heroism of Patrice Lumumba is embraced as a symbol of African independence efforts. In the 2006 election, a number of the running parties affiliated themselves with Lumumba's political philosophy. This includes the Unified Lumumbist Party (Parti Lumumbiste Unifié (PALU)), Mouvement Lumumbiste (MLP) and Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba (MNC-L). The MNC-L is lead by Lumumba's eldest son, François Lumumba, who obtained a doctorate in political economics in Hungary before returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1992 to oppose Mobutu Sese Seko‘s rule of the country then known as Zaire.

In Kampala, Uganda, "Lumumba Hall" of Residence at Makerere University continues to carry the name of Patrice Lumumba.

Did You Know? The various formal official country names
for the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Congo Free State (État indépendant du Congo): 1885 to 1908. Belgian King Leopold II claimed personal ownership over the land
  • Belgian Congo (Congo Belge): 1908 - 1960. King Leopold II's formal transfer of property ownership to the state of Belgium
  • Republic of the Congo or Congo-Léopoldville: 1960 - 1964. Distinguish from its western neighbor in the Republic of the Congo, formerly French Congo
  • Republic of the Congo or Congo-Kinshasa (1964-1971)
  • Zaire (Zaïre): 1971-1997
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: 1997 to Present
Books for further reading:

African American Artist: Charles W. White, Jr.

Charles Wilbert White, Jr. (born April 2, 1918 – died October 3, 1979)

Charles White, Jr. was born on April 2, 1918 to Ethel Gary and Charles White Sr. on the South Side of Chicago. He discovered at an early age that he could draw. Often described as a Social Realist artist, White’s works is largely devoted to monumental prints and mural eloquently documenting the universality of humanity through the portrayal of Black America.  

Coming home from school one day, White discovered students from The Art Institute of Chicago painting in a nearby park. One student explained how to mix paint and turpentine and stretch canvas. She also advised him that the class would be working there for a week. The next day after school, White raced there with an oil set his mother had previously bought him. Using a window blind as his canvas, he painted a landscape. Although initially angered by his destruction of the blind, his mother treasured this painting until her death in 1977.

Harvest Talk, Charles White. Charcoal, pencil and graphite, with stamping and erasing on ivory wood-pulp laminate body (1953)

Frustrated by the education system’s omission of Black contributions to American society, White, out of this frustration, began to skip school. At age 14, he worked as a sign letterer for the Regal Theater, where he began meeting other Black artists. He worked with George E. Neal, a Black artist, who while supporting himself by lettering and illustrating small Black publications, studied at the Art Institute. White’s drawings won a competition, permitting him to attend a Saturday “honors” class at the Art Institute. Artists Charles Sebree and Margaret Burroughs also attended this class.

“He was a particularly inspiring teacher,” said White, referring to Neal. “We used to have classes in his home. Elzier Cortor, Charles Sebree, and Frank Neal, who wasn’t related to him, as well as me, were all influenced by George. He made us conscious of the craft aspect of painting technique. He made us conscious of the beauty of those beat-up old shacks. He made us conscious of the beauty of Black people.”

Image of Awaken from the Unknowing, Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper (1961)

When he was 16-years-old, White attended a Saturday night party at the studio of Katherine Dunham, then a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago and developing her dance career. There he met poet Gwendolyn Brooks, author Margaret Walker, Richard Wright and Willard Motley; sociologist Horace Cayton; and many other artists and intellectuals gathering on Chicago’s South Side. He was exposed to many new ideas. They could be described as Alain Locke’s “New Negro,” a philosophy that would have a great impact on White.

White won a scholarship to study at the Art Institute full-time. He also began to work as a Works in Progress (WPA) artist and became a member of the Arts and Crafts Guilds. At the Art Institute, White was introduced to the Mexican muralists who used art to educate the masses. This concept greatly excited White, as it would excite the artist Elizabeth Catlett, whom he would later marry. He wanted his art to speak to Black people, instilling and reaffirming confidence and pride.

Frederick Douglass Lives Again (The Ghost of Frederick Douglass), Charles White. Pen and ink drawing (1949)

White met and married talented sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, who then taught at Dillard University in New Orleans and was taking the summer to study at the Art Institute. He had won two scholarships, one to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Frederic Mizes Academy of Arts, both of which were withdrawn upon the discovery that White was actually Black.

White would later win a Julius Rosenwald Foundation study grant to do research in the South. In the South, White began to understand the beauty of the “Negro” speech, folklore and poetry, dance and music. The music especially moved him -- the spirituals, blues, ballads, the work songs. This music had a very profound meaning for White and his work.

Two racially motivated events, to occur later, would also have profound effect on White. First, he was severely beaten for entering a restaurant in New Orleans. Secondly, in Hampton, Virginia, a conductor forced White to the rear of a streetcar at gunpoint. Over the course of 15 years, he would learn of the lynching of three uncles and two cousins. White developed an anger against injustice that deepened.

Charles White participated in the civil rights movement through his art, creating strong, expressive figures depicting the plight of African Americans. Sounds of Silence 11, Charles White. Lithograph ( 1971)

White and Catlett would eventually moved to New York, where the painter Ernest Crichlow introduced them to Black artists and intellectuals. Catlett began studies with the Cubist-influenced sculpture Ossip Zadkine. White studied with Harry Sternberg, a leading instructor of etching and lithography at the Art Student League.

White and Catlett would leave New York to teach at Hampton Institute in Virginia until White was drafted in 1943. Soon after, White developed tuberculosis. He spent three years in a Veterans hospital in Beacon, New York. White did not paint during this time. He devised his own therapy. He reread all that he had read during his adolescence. 

Upon recovery, he returned to New York and created. He had a one man show at the American Contemporary Artists (ACA) Gallery in September 1947. That fall, White and Catlett went to Mexico at the invitation of the famous muralist David Siquerios. They studied and worked at Mexico’s famous graphic workshop Taller de Grafica Popular for nearly a year.

“I saw artists working to create an art about and for the people,” said White of his Mexican experience. “This has been the strongest influence in my whole approach. It clarified the direction in which I wanted to move.”

His marriage to Catlett ended soon after his travels to Mexico. His health began to deteriorate again. He was hospitalized for a year in New York where he was to undergo lung surgery. White’s art began to gradually shift from historical figures to ordinary common Black folks, always maintaining the same dignity. His work became more rhythmic and fluid, realistic and humanistic.

Image of Untitled, Charles White, ink and graphite on paper (1950)

In 1950, White married Frances Barrett. They honeymooned in Europe and were delighted to find that White’s lithographs received high recognition. Portfolios of his work could be found throughout Europe. Upon returning to the U.S., White’s failing health prompted the newlyweds to move to California for the weather. In California, he gradually regained his health.

White’s works were being discovered by the Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s. Black colleges anxiously sought his exhibitions. The socially conscious artists of the 1930s were finding new eyes in the 1960s.

Charles White, Jr. died in 1980. It was he who best articulated his art. “I use Negro subject matter because Negroes are closest to me. But I am trying to express a universal feeling through them, a meaning for all men… All my life, I’ve been painting a simple painting. This does not mean that I am a man without anger -- I’ve had my work in museum’s where I wasn’t allowed to see it. But what I pour into my work is the challenge of how beautiful life can be.”

Adapted from article originally published by Vanessa Cross in Afrique, June 1996: Charles White: The Art of a Chicago Son Beautifies Experiences of Common Black Folk.


Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More