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Charles Clarence Dawson | Art & Design in Chicago

Charles Clarence Dawson

A poster designed by Charles Clarence Dawson in 1934
A poster designed by Charles Clarence Dawson in 1934

At the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, only one African American artist had a visible presence. It wasn’t Archibald Motley, Jr., the city’s best-known black fine artist at the time; it was an adman by the name of Charles Clarence Dawson. Not that Dawson didn’t also have fine art training or aspirations – he had actually been a classmate of Motley’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But he struggled to make a living from painting alone and so turned to commercial art to support himself.

Artist/Designer Charles Dawson
Watch: Artist/Designer Charles Dawson

Dawson’s biggest contribution to the World’s Fair was a mural for the Urban League’s exhibit in the Social Science Hall entitled Negro Migration: The Exodus that depicted the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial cities of the North. Dawson himself was from the South, born in Georgia in 1889. He attended the famed Tuskegee Institute for two years before moving to New York City to try to advance his career as an artist. Encountering racism as the first African American in the Art Student League there, he eventually saved enough money to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which he believed was less hostile and biased.

While studying in Chicago, he also worked as a Pullman porter and as a waiter at the private arts club The Cliff Dwellers. Upon his graduation in 1917, he enlisted in the army and was sent to France as a “Buffalo Soldier,” a member of the only segregated combat division to see combat during World War I. When he returned to Chicago after the war, he began designing advertisements, working especially with such black entrepreneurs as banker Jesse Binga, businessman Anthony Overton, and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. One of his other contributions to the 1933 World’s Fair was a poster for the Pageant of Negro Music, which is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Charles Dawson and his class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Charles Dawson (back row, fourth from left) and his class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Archibald Motley, Jr. (back row, third from left) stands next to Dawson. Photo provided by the Charles C. Dawson Collection, DuSable Museum of African American History

Despite his commercial work, Dawson remained active in fine arts. He co-founded Chicago’s first black arts collective, the Arts and Letters Society, and helped establish the Chicago Art League, a group of exhibiting African American artists. In 1927, he took part in the first exhibition of African American art at a major American museum, the Art Institute’s Negro in Art Week. And he produced his own projects as well, such as an unpublished autobiography now held by the DuSable Museum of African American History and a self-published educational book meant to inspire pride in black children, The ABCs of Great Negroes.


Take a look at the work of more African American designers in a story spotlighting two Chicago exhibits.

Dawson ended his career in the fine art world, leaving Chicago to become the curator of the Museum of Negro Art and Culture at his alma mater, Tuskegee University in Alabama, in the 1940s. He died in 1981.