Charles Henry Alston papers, 1924-1980

A Finding Aid to the Charles Henry Alston Papers, 1924-1980, in the Archives of American Art, by Jayna M. Hanson

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Funding for the digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art

Table of Contents:



Biographical Information

Charles Henry Alston (1907-1977) worked primarily in New York city as a painter, muralist, illustrator, and educator. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance movement in the 1930s and helped form the Harlem Art Workshop and the Harlem Artists Guild.

Charles Henry "Spinky" Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina on November 28th, 1907. His parents were the Reverend Primus Priss and Anna Miller. After the death of his father, Alston's mother married Henry Pierce Bearden (Romare Bearden's uncle) in 1913 and the family moved to New York City.

At DeWitt Clinton High School in New York, Alston served as art editor of the school's literary magazine. Alston majored in fine arts and history at Columbia University, graduating in 1929. He became active in the Harlem community and accepted a position as director of Utopia House, a boy's camp, where he started an art program. He returned to Columbia and recieved a Masters degree in art education from Columbia's Teachers College. While still a student, he illustrated album covers for jazz musician Duke Ellington and book covers for poet Langston Hughes.

Alston played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance Movement of the period. During the Great Depression, he and sculptor Henry Bannarn directed the Harlem Art Workshop which was funded by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. There he taught and mentored African-American painter Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, among others.

In the 1950s, Alston embarked on a series of portraits of African-American figures. He also taught at the Art Students League and later with the City College of New York (CUNY). Along with his wife, Myra Logan, a surgeon at Harlem Hospital, Alston lived in Harlem and remained an active member of the community until the end of his life. Charles Alston died in 1977.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The scattered papers of African-American and Harlem Renaissance painter, muralist, illustrator, sculptor, and educator Charles Henry Alston (1907-1977) measure 0.9 linear feet and date from 1924-1980. The bulk of the collection documents his personal and professional relationships with figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Researchers should note that this collection contains very little documentation on Alston's actual federal WPA work with the Harlem Art Workshop, the Harlem Artists Guild, or his Harlem Hospital murals completed in 1940. A photograph of Alston in 1937 is likely the only reference to the actual WPA murals in this collection.

Scattered correspondence includes general correspondence; letters concerning Alston's artistic endeavors; and personal letters from friends and family. Found is a copy of a thank you note from Eudora Welty to John Woodburn for a jacket design presumably by Alston; letters from Harlem Renaissance figures and personal friends Romare Bearden, Byron Brown, Jacob Lawrence, Hale Woodruff, and Dr. Louis T. Wright.

Commission files are for Alston's murals including those in the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building in Los Angeles, California (1947); and the addition to the Harlem Hospital (1965); and the Family and Criminal Courts Building in the Bronx, New York (1976). There is one file concerning teaching at City College New York (CUNY).

Writings and notes includes scattered notes and three short stories probably by Alston entitled "Bitsy O'Wire," "Body and Soul," and "Gigi."

Printed materials include illustrations by Alston in the Columbia University literary magazine, The Morningside, and medical illustrations done for Dr. Louis T. Wright. Also found are scattered clippings, exhibition announcements, press releases, and materials from the First Conference on Aesthetic Responsibility.

Photographs are of Alston, Alston with his wife, Myra Logan, his mother Anna Alston Bearden, Romare Bearden, and Hale Woodruff. Photographs of note include one of Alston holding a self-portrait, and one of the artist in 1937 with works that are most likely preliminary sketches of his WPA murals at Harlem Hospital. There are also photographs of Alston's works of art.

Arrangement and Series Description

The collection is arranged into 6 series:

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following terms:

Subjects:

  • Bearden, Anna Alston
  • Logan, Myra, 1909-1977
  • City University of New York -- City College -- Faculty

Subjects-Topical:

  • African American artists -- New York (State) -- New York
  • Art -- Study and teaching
  • Educators -- New York (State) -- New York
  • Harlem Renaissance
  • Illustrators -- New York (State) -- New York
  • Muralists -- New York (State) -- New York
  • Painters -- New York (State) -- New York
  • Sculptors -- New York (State) -- New York

Types of Materials:

  • Photographs

Names:

  • Bearden, Romare, 1911-1988
  • Browne, Byron, 1907-1961
  • Lawrence, Jacob, 1917-
  • Welty, Eudora, 1909-
  • Woodruff, Hale, 1900-
  • Wright, Louis T. (Louis Tompkins), 1891-1952

Provenance

The collection was donated by Aida Winters and Rousmaniere Alston Wilson, Charles Alston's sisters, in 1982 and 1984.

Separated and Related Materials

In 1970, Charles Alston loaned materials for microfilming, including correspondence with Henry Epstein, Langston Hughes, Robert Riggs, Harry Sternberg, J. Johnson Sweeney, Hale Woodruff and others. Also loaned for microfilming were sketchbooks, printed materials, and photographs. Subsequently, some of the photographs were later donated by Alston's sisters. The loaned materials are available only on microfilm reel N70-23 at Archives of American Art offices, and through interlibrary loan. These materials are not included in the container listing of this finding aid.

Also found in the Archives of American Art are two oral history interviews with Charles Henry Alston, one conducted by Harlan Phillips on September 28, 1965 and another by Al Murray on October 19, 1968.

Additional Charles Henry Alston papers are located at the University of North Carolina's Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library.

How the Collection was Processed

Upon receipt, the collection was arranged and microfilmed on reels 4222-4223. The collection was reprocessed with a finding aid prepared by Jayna Hanson in 2008. In 2010, the collection was fully digitized with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.


How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

Use of original papers requires an appointment.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The Charles Henry Alston papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

Available Formats

The bulk of this collection was digitized in 2010 and is available via the Archives of American Art's website. Materials not scanned include health records, financial tax notes, duplicates, and photographs of works of art.

How to Cite this Collection

Charles Henry Alston papers, 1924-1980. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory

Series 1: Biographical Information, 1924-1977
(Box 1; 3 folders)

Found here are Charles Henry Alston's resumes, vital information, a copied marriage certificate, memorial information, and educational records from Dewitt Clinton High School and Columbia University. Also found are financial notes from the 1970s which consist of handwritten tax and self-employment records.

The bulk of this series has been scanned. Sensitive health records and financial notes have not been scanned.

Box Folder
1 1 Charles Henry Alston, circa 1940s-1977
(partially scanned)
1 2 Educational Information, 1924-1970
1 3 Financial Notes, 1974-1975, circa 1970s
(not scanned)

Series 2: Correspondence, 1931-1977
(Box 1; 7 folders)

Scattered correspondence includes general correspondence, letters concerning Alston's art, illustrations, exhibitions, and personal letters from friends and family. Found is a copy of a thank you note from Eudora Welty to John Woodburn for a jacket design presumably by Alston; letters from Harlem Renaissance figures and personal friends Romare Bearden, Byron Brown, Jacob Lawrence, Hale Woodruff, and Dr. Louis T. Wright.

This series has been scanned in its entirety with the exception of duplicates.

Box Folder
1 4 Correspondence, 1931, 1937-1938
1 5 Correspondence, 1940-1949
1 6 Correspondence, 1950-1959
1 7 Correspondence, 1960-1969
1 8-9 Correspondence, 1970-1979
(2 folders)
1 10 Correspondence, circa 1930s-1970s
Included is a letter from Eudora Welty to John Woodburn, an editor at Harcourt, Brace and Company. The letter concerns Welty's Delta Wedding (1946), for which Alston designed the dust cover.

Series 3: Commission and Teaching Files, 1947-1976
(Box 1; 4 folders)

This series includes materials documenting Alston's mural commissions including those in the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building in Los Angeles, California (1947) which consists of a reproduction of the murals with a description key and a few pieces of correspondence; the expansion in the Harlem Hospital (1965) which consists of a legal agreement and correspondence; and the Family and Criminal Courts Building in the Bronx, New York (1976) which contains correspondence, memoranda, legal agreements, financial materials such as bills, and proposals. There is one file concerning teaching at City College New York (CUNY).

This series has been scanned in its entirety with the exception of duplicates.

Box Folder
1 11 Golden State Mutual Life Insurance, Los Angeles, California, 1947-1949
1 12 Harlem Hospital Expansion, 1965-1969
1 13 Family and Criminal Courts Building, Bronx, New York, 1972-1976
1 14 City College New York, 1963-1976

Series 4: Writings and Notes, circa 1940s-1970s
(Box 2-3; 4 folders)

This series consists of short stories probably written by Alston and scattered notes. Also found is a handwritten draft of "Bitsy O'Wire" with a few illustrations.

This series has been scanned in its entirety.

Box Folder
2 1 "Bitsy O'Wire," circa 1940s-1970s
(Oversized material housed on Box 3)
2 2 "Body and Soul," circa 1940s-1970s
2 3 "Gigi," circa 1940s-1970s
2 4 Notes circa 1940s-1970s
Box
3 Oversized and Illustrated "Bitsy O'Wire,"
(Scanned with Box 2, F1)

Series 5: Printed Material, 1928, 1946-1980
(Box 2-3; 5 folders)

Found are exhibition press releases, announcements and invitations, and newspaper clippings about Alston, copies of Alston's illustrations for Columbia University's literary magazine The Morningside and a medical journal featuring drawings done for Louis T. Wright by Alston, and a report for the First Conference on Aesthetic Responsibility.

The bulk of this series has been scanned with the exception of the medical journal of which only the front cover has been scanned.

Box Folder
2 5 Clippings, 1968-1979
2 6 Exhibition Announcements and Invitations, 1958, 1966, 1968, 1980
(Oversized Material housed in Box 3)
2 7 Illustrated by Charles Alston, 1928, 1946, circa 1940s
2 8 Press Releases, circa 1950s-1969
2 9 Reports, First Conference on Aesthetic Responsibility, circa 1962
Box
3 Oversized Exhibition Announcement,
(Scanned with Box 2, F6)

Series 6: Photographs, 1925-1968
(Box 2; 2 folders)

Photographs are of Charles Henry Alston, his wife Myra Logan, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Anna Alston Bearden, and other members of Alston's family, friends, and colleagues. Photographs of note include two photos of Alston with his works of art--one of which may be of his WPA murals dated 1937. Also found are photographs of works of art by Charles Alston.

This series has been partially scanned, photographs of works of art have not been scanned.

Box Folder
2 10 Charles Alston and Others, 1925, 1968, circa 1920s-1960s
2 11 Works of Art by Charles Alston, circa 1920s-1960s
(not scanned)