February is Black History Month! Visit the National Archives website to learn more about our many events and activities celebrating African American History.
Charles Henry Alston (November 28, 1907–April 27, 1977) was a noted African American artist and teacher. He is best known for sculpting the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., on display in the White House, but his association with the federal government started much earlier.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alston moved with his family to New York City in 1915. He spent his life living and working in Harlem and was active in the Harlem Renaissance.
During the 1930s, the WPA’s Federal Art Project commissioned Alston to paint murals for a hospital in Harlem.
Later, during World War II, the Office of War Information hired Alston for a series of drawings to be featured in black newspapers. The Records of the Office of War Information at the National Archives contain many of these drawings.
Some of them had the typical war time propaganda messages—conserve fuel, buy war bonds, and grow victory gardens.
Others feature African Americans and other black leaders—both famous and lesser unknown—who have made significant contributions to mankind.
For instance, Alston drew this portrait of Harvard-educated attorney Edward O. Gourdin.
During the war, Gourdin left his position as assistant district attorney in Boston, to become an officer in the famous 372nd Infantry Regiment. After the war, Gourdin went on to become a judge in the Massachusetts Superior Court.
Alston also drew Willa B. Brown, a lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol. Brown was the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s license in the U.S.
She devoted her life to gender and racial equality in both the military and in aviation. She was instrumental in the integration of the U.S. Army Air Corps and was co-founder of the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first private flight training academy in the U.S. owned and operated by African Americans. There, Brown trained hundreds of pilots, several of whom became Tuskegee Airmen.
While Alston’s drawings were created to boost wartime morale, they remain timeless in delivering a message of both racial and gender equality.
Visit the National Archives online catalog to view more of Alston’s drawings including those of Frederick Douglass, Joe Louis, George Washington Carver, Haile Selassie, and many others.