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Cover of Charles Dawson’s
ABCs of Great Negroes (Dawson Publishers), 1933.
Art Institute of Chicago
Page from Charles Dawson’s
ABCs of Great Negroes (Dawson Publishers) featuring Booker T.
Art Institute of Chicago
Charles C. Dawson, cover of
the “Negro in Art Week” program, 1927.
Ryerson Library at the Art
Institute of Chicago.
Charles C. Dawson,
illustration for Murray’s Superior Hair Dressing Pomade, 1926. Printed
tin container top, 3-inches diameter.
Charles Dawson (back row,
fourth from left) and class at the School of the Art Institute of
Chicago, c. 1916. Standing to Dawson’s right is Archibald J. Motley, Jr.
Professor Karl Buehr is seated in the front row, center.
Photograph from the
Charles C. Dawson Collection, DuSable Museum of African American
History. A gift from Mrs. Mary R. Dawson, deceased.
One of Chicago's leading black artists and
designers in the
1920s and '30s, Charles Clarence Dawson is best known for his
illustrated advertisements for beauty schools and products, such as
Annie Malone's Poro College and Valmor Products, which were
targeted to the city's burgeoning black population. Enterprising,
self-assured and a tireless “Race Man,” Dawson made powerful
contributions to the efforts of black artists in the city to
story is told in great detail and piquancy in an
unpublished—and rarely cited—autobiography, which is now in the
DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. Born to
hard-working, middle class parents in the Atlantic-coast town of
Brunswick, Georgia, Dawson attended Booker T. Washington's famed
Tuskegee Institute. After two years, during which Dawson studied
drafting with architect Walter Bailey, Dawson left Tuskegee for New
York in 1907, where he became the first African American to be
admitted to the Art Students League. While working odd jobs to pay
tuition expenses, Dawson toiled in George Bridgman's evening
antique and then life-drawing classes, eventually receiving the
With money earned
in the summer of 1912 working in a Pullman
buffet club car, Dawson was able to fulfill his dream of attending
the Art Institute of Chicago. In contrast to the Art Students
League, where Dawson experienced overt racial hostility, the policy
of the Art Institute, in Dawson's words, was “entirely free of
bias.” In addition to spending summers as a Pullman porter out of
Chicago, Dawson was helped by Art Institute staff to find a number
of interesting jobs to help him with tuition. As a waiter at
Chicago's elite Cliff Dwellers Club, he watched proudly as African
American émigré artist Henry Ossawa Tanner was treated as an
honored visitor. He was also secretary of the Chicago Architectural
League and manager of the Annual Chicago Architectural Exhibition,
held at the Art Institute. Dawson threw himself into student
organizations such as the Art Students League of Chicago, and was a
founding member of the Arts and Letters Society, which was the
first black artists collective in Chicago. Dawson's attempts to
assert his leadership over black students at the Art Institute
fueled a rivalry with his younger classmate, Archibald J. Motley,
Jr., who would go on to become a more famous artist than
After graduation from the
School of the Art Institute in 1917,
only weeks after the United States entered World War I, Dawson was
accepted for officer training in the segregated armed forces. He
saw combat in France as a lieutenant in the all-black 36th Regiment
of the 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers. Dawson
returned to a changed Chicago. Tensions between the growing black
community and a white working-class population in search of jobs
after the war resulted in the Race Riot of 1919, which left 35 dead
and hundreds injured over a two-week period in late July and early
August. At the same time, blacks in Chicago were beginning to gain
economic and political power; they also took part (as did blacks in
New York) in the program of cultural modernization, known as the
New Negro Movement.
Dawson played a
role in both the cultural and economic rise of
blacks in the 1920s. From 1919 to 1922 he worked as a salesman and
account manager for a downtown firm called Chicago Engravers, where
he served black and white clients. Leaving the firm to become a
freelancer, Dawson executed advertising illustrations for major
black entrepreneurs—and competitors—Anthony Overton and Jesse
Binga, who owned banks, newspapers and life insurance companies,
and manufactured beauty products. Dawson also provided drawings for
the short-lived Chicago magazine Reflexus (reflects us), as
well as ads for black film director Oscar Micheaux.
Dawson continued to pursue work as a fine
artist. With other
alumni of the Art Institute, including William Edouard Scott and
William McKnight Farrow, in 1924 Dawson established the black
exhibiting group the Chicago Art League. He also played a key role
in the most important manifestation of the New Negro Movement in
the visual arts, the 1927 Negro in Art Week exhibition at
the Art Institute of Chicago. Organized by Alain Locke and
sponsored by the Chicago Woman's Club, the exhibition was the first
to show African-American art at a major American museum.
With the onset of the Great Depression,
which struck Chicago
very hard, Dawson managed to stay afloat largely through his work
for Valmor Products Company. The owner of the company, Morton
Neumann, who later became famous as one of Chicago's great art
collectors, refused to allow Dawson to sign his work. Dawson was
the only black artist to have a substantial role in the 1933–1934
Century of Progress Fair, when he received a commission for a mural
illustrating the Great Migration for the National Urban League's
display in the Hall of Social Science. Dawson also produced a
poster for the Pageant of Negro Music, O, Sing A New Song,
which took place at Soldier Field as part of the Fair in August
1934. Another noteworthy product of the early 1930s was Dawson's
children's book, ABCs of Great Negroes. The book, which
Dawson self-published, consists of portraits of 26 historically
significant men and women of African descent, executed in bold and
stylized linoleum cut prints.
and Motley were the only two black artists in Illinois to
work on the early New Deal art program, the Public Works of Art
Project; but Dawson was quickly dropped for failure to demonstrate
financial need. Dawson's career was changed when he was hired by
another WPA program, the National Youth Administration (NYA). In
1940, his supervisors at the NYA tasked him with designing the
layout for the American Negro Exposition, which had received an
appropriation of $75,000 from the State of Illinois, but was
foundering. Dawson designed the large space within the Chicago
Coliseum and came up with the iconography for 20 dioramas
illustrating African-American history.
ended his career back at Tuskegee, as curator of the
Museum of Negro Art and Culture and the George Washington Carver
Museum, from 1944 to 1951. Dawson retired to New Hope,
Pennsylvania, where he lived until his death in 1981.
Charles C. Dawson Papers, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, D.C.
Schulman, “'White City' and 'Black Metropolis': African
American Painters in Chicago, 1893–1945,” in Chicago Modern,
1893–1945: Pursuit of the New, (Chicago: Terra Museum of
American Art, 2004)
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