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Charles Henry Alston papers, 1924-1980

Charles Henry Alston papers, 1924-1980

Alston, Charles Henry, 1907-1977

Sculptor, Painter, Educator, Draftsmen (artists)

Representative image for Charles Henry Alston papers, 1924-1980

This site provides access to the papers of Charles Henry Alston in the Archives of American Art that were digitized in 2010. The papers have been scanned in their entirety, and total 948 images.

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

Collection Information

Size: 0.9 linear ft.

Summary: The scattered papers of African-American 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" 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.

Biographical/Historical Note

Charles Henry "Spinky" Alston (1907-1977) was a painter and an educator from New York, N.Y. Charles Alston was born in Charlotte, N.C. and grew up in Harlem. He was director of the Harlem Art Workshop during the Great Depression, along with sculptor Henry Bannarn. There he taught and mentored African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, as well as Romare Bearden, among others. Alston also helped form the Harlem Artists Guild, which pressured the government to be more inclusive in its grant giving. He was an instructor at the Art Students League (1950-1971) and at the City College of New York (1959-1977).


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

Related Materials

Additional Charles Henry Alston papers are also located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

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.


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

A Finding Aid to the Charles Henry Alston Papers,
in the Archives of American Art
Biographical Note
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.
The collection is arranged into 6 series:
Series 1: Biographical Information, 1924-1977 (Box 1; 3 folders)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1931-1977(Box 1; 7 folders)
Series 3: Commission and Teaching Files, 1947-1976 (Box 1; 4 folders)
Series 4: Writings and Notes, circa 1940s-1970s (Box 2-3; 4 folders)
Series 5: Printed Material, 1928, 1946-1980(Box 2-3; 5 folders)
Series 6: Photographs, 1925-1968 (Box 2; 2 folders)
The collection was donated by Aida Winters and Rousmaniere Alston Wilson, Charles Alston's sisters, in 1982 and 1984.
Processing Information
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.

Additional Forms Available

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.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

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

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