Little Known Black History Fact: Charles Alston

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    Charles Henry “Spinky” Alston was a black artist of the Harlem Renaissance. It was “Spinky” Alston who designed the album covers for jazz musician Duke Ellington and book covers for poet Langston Hughes. Born from a family of painters, he learned the art from his father. After his father passed, his mother remarried the uncle of artist Romare Bearden. In 1929, Alston served as director of the Utopia House, a boy’s camp in Harlem, where he started an art program.


    Charles Alston was born in 1907 in Charlotte, NC. As a child, he looked up to the work of his father, Reverend Primus Priss, who wrote illustrated love letters to his mother. Alston would also try to recreate his brother’s drawings of cars.

    A few years after joining the Utopia House, Alston taught and mentored Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden in his “306 group” of Harlem artists. The group also included sculptor Augusta Savage. Alston and friend Henry Bannarn directed the Harlem Art Workshop which was funded by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. Because of his efforts to recognize Harlem Renaissance artists, the Harlem Artists Guild was born.

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