Acquisitions: Charles W. and Frances Barrett White Letters and Photographs to Melvin and Lorraine Williamson

By Erin Jenoa Gilbert

May 14, 2020

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records, and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue (vol. 59, no. 1) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/aaa/current.

In November 2019, Christie’s auctioned Banner for Willie J, a 1976 oil painting by Charles Wilbert White (1918–1979), a draftsman renowned for deeply spiritual, social realist renderings of African Americans. The $1.2 million sale price contrasted starkly with the situation his wife “Fran” described in a 1957 letter, noting, “We literally had 3c on Monday, April 29th.” The letter is one of twenty-eight addressed to Melvin Williamson (1923–1995)—artist, author, and art director of Viking Press—and his wife Lorraine. As one half of the letters were written by Frances Barrett White and the other by Charles, the collection documents the couples’ relationship, while focusing on Charles’s career. It also contains more than fifty snapshots and negatives, some color slides, an exhibition brochure, and a newspaper clipping.  

Both Charles White and Melvin Williamson were born in Chicago and attended the city’s Art Institute, but their friendship flourished in New York, where White began printmaking. Composed between October 1956 and June 1960, the letters document White’s move from New York to Los Angeles. The letters capture his critique of current events in coded language that both men, married to white women, used to subvert their segregated culture. They also illuminate the men’s mutual support during tragic and triumphant moments in African American history. On February 4, 1957, for example, Charles White wrote concerning esteemed African American printmaker Robert Blackburn, “Tell him to please . . . run as many as he can and send them as fast as possible. I could have sold a couple hundred by now.” Later that month he wrote that Blackburn “did a beautiful job of printing. . . . How about South Africa putting down a fine bus strike? And Rev. King on the cover of Time Magazine.”

These letters compliment the Archives’ Charles W. White Papers, which include dispatches from artists, actors, activists, and writers such as Richmond Barthé, Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, and Langston Hughes. In his letters to the Williamsons, White describes these celebrity encounters along with his anticipation of exhibitions and anxieties regarding sales. On January 12, 1958, he wrote, “The deadline for getting my work to NY is breathing down my neck.” The following letter, dated March 24, reads, “The exhibit is sold out. A phenomenon that is slightly overwhelming.” A brochure with text by Belafonte confirms “the exhibit” was at ACA Galleries, March 17–April 5, 1958.

The most recent letter in the collection, postmarked June 20, 1960, proposes that the two men unite to amplify the activities of the civil rights movement. “Williamson & White is a combination that the art world will have to contend with,” Charles declared. “In short, Mel, let’s set up a little combine to do some . . . projects that are dear to our hearts and will help relieve us of some frustrations.” This statement resonates with a coauthored document in the White Papers entitled, “Prospectus for a Literary-Art Project on the New Role of Negro Youth in the United States Today” (ca. 1961).

 

Erin Jenoa Gilbert is the curator of African American manuscripts at the Archives of American Art.

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