The CEJJES Institute and The Charles White Gallery

Lesson Plans and Activities

Lesson 1: Document Based Question

Aim: Learn how Charles White used his artwork to address social issues and social justice throughout America's history. Learn how art can be used to influence, educate and create understanding.

Objectives: The students will be able to:

  • analyze primary source documents
  • interpret data from images and text
  • explain the influence of events in society on the artist Charles White
  • write a well-organized essay of no more than 5 paragraphs.

NYS Learning Standards: SS 1&2, Art 3, ELA 1&3
NCSS Standards addressed: 1-Culture, 2-Time, Continuity and Change,


  • Primary source documents: Charles White biography and statements of philosophy, Charles White images, Mary McLeod Bethune, I've Been Buked and I've Been Scorned, and Return of the Soldier.
  • Excerpts from "Charles White" by Andrea D. Barnwell

Classroom Activities:

  1. Display documents from Part A (attached) on overhead projector.
  2. Work with students to analyze each document and answer the questions
  3. Read and discuss the historical context.

Independent Activity: Students use the answers from the documents in Part A to write a 5 paragraph essay to answer the tasks in Part B (attached).

Document-Based Question (DBQ)

This question is based on the accompanying documents. Some of these documents have been edited for the purposes of the question. As you analyze the documents, take into account the source of each document and any point of view that may be presented in the document.

Historical Context:

Charles White was one of the greatest African-American artists of the 20th Century. A committed, socially-conscious figurative painter and lithographer whose remarkable skills were matched by his powerful imagery, White's work is owned by every major museum in the United States, has been featured in numerous museum and gallery shows, and has been written about extensively. His passion for art was accompanied by a love of teaching, and he mentored many students who became accomplished professional artists in their own right. Since his death in 1979, White's reputation has only grown.

In 1936, while in high school, White won a scholarship to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. He began to address themes of the social injustices facing blacks and, in 1938; he began working on projects through the Works Progress Administration, including murals for auditoriums and exhibition halls. This led to the commission of his first mural: Five Great American Negroes.

White moved to New York in 1942, studying for a short period of time at the Art Students League, and forging numerous relationships with social activists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals. He continued to execute murals, studying and working for a time with David Alfaro Siqueiros and other Mexican muralists in Mexico City. He also continued his immersion in social causes, providing illustrations for several leftist publications. His travels through the south, where he personally experienced violence and racism, strengthened his resolve to battle social injustice through his art.

During the 1960s, White executed a series of massive drawings and continued to receive numerous solo exhibitions and honors, including an honorary doctor of arts degree from Columbia College in Chicago. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, he created a series of "wanted" posters based on Civil War posters advertising runaway slaves and slave auctions. White died of congestive heart failure on October 3, 1979


Using information from the documents answer the questions that follow each exhibit in Part A. Your answers to the questions will help you write the Part B essay in which you will be asked to:

  • Discuss the significance of the artwork and murals developed by the artist Charles White
  • Describe the role of an artist according the philosophy of Charles White.
  • Discuss how social injustices influenced the work of Charles White.

In developing your answer to the Part B essay, be sure to keep these general definitions in mind:

  1. describe means "to illustrate something in words or tell about it"
  2. discuss means "to make observations about something using facts, reasoning, and argument; to give details about it.

Part A
Short-Answer Questions

Directions: Review the below passages and artwork. Answer the questions that follow each in the space provided.

Document 1

A work of art was meant to belong to people, not to be a single person's private possession. Art should take its place as one of the necessities of life, like food, clothing and shelter.

I feel that even more than in my work of three years ago, I have been able to engender a feeling of hope. Even in a scene exposing the harshness of life of the common people, … hope is latent and must be revealed.

It is a glorious experience being an artist: to seek the meaning of truth, reality, beauty, in short, to meet the challenge of life through ones sensitivities. But the artist, like the scientist, the educator, the philosopher, shoulders enormous social responsibilities for he deals in the realm of ideas. [The artist works with] ideas that are subject to interpretation; ideas that are inquest if abstract truths; ideas that the artist strives to relate to his period, his environment and his national heritage often, in a social atmosphere of indifference and intolerance. Many people, in this supposedly advanced civilization, view the artist, his works, as a luxury item, a commodity – expendable. What a contrast to the so-called primitive societies where art and the artist are truly a life-giving force.

I lived in the United States as a progressive Negro artist. Like all artists, I have special problems. But I have reached a point in my life at which I know, with a conviction deeply rooted in reality, confirmed by small but potent and inescapable signs, that the future is very bright, and it holds great promise for the Negro people and all the working people of my country; I have tried to put this message in my art.

Adapted from Charles White statements, shared by Fran White, April 26, 1982, Charles White biography and Statement of Philosophy.

1a. According to the passage above, what is the responsibility of an artist?

1b. Explain why Charles White considered art a life-giving force?

1c. According to Charles White, art is as important to humankind as:

1d. Some work of Charles White depicts scenes of despair or harshness. On of his goals in illustrating such scenes is to inspire feelings of:

What is Public Art?

It is a term given to the practice of involving artists in the conception, development and transformation of a public space. Public art is specifically commissioned for a known site and its audience is the public or community, be it social or working, occupying that space. It can be sited permanently or temporarily. It encompasses a wide range of art forms including mosaics, painting, sculpture, lighting, landscape designs, textiles, glasswork, video installation, ceramics and performance art. Public art has a significant impact on the local environment and can be used to encourage renewal and enhancements of public or private spaces. Public art also plays an important role in our everyday lives as it can improve and complement our environments, bring communities together, offer social and educational opportunities and promote tourism.

Charles White accepted a commission to create a mural at the Los Angeles Public Library, because he was unable to turn down a project focusing on an influential woman whom he admired and respected tremendously. In 1978 he completed Mary McLeod Bethune (above) for the Bethune Branch Library in Exposition Park on Vermont Avenue. Bethune was one of a family of seventeen children who grew up in South Carolina. She began her education at age fifteen at a missionary school in South Carolina, and then went on to the Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in Concord, North Carolina, and the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Later she established the Daytona Institute and Industrial School for Negro Girls, which became Bethune-Cookman College. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Bethune director of the Division of Negro Affairs.

The mural emphasized black families and the overarching significance of music, education, and culture. As a focal point, White used Bethune's well-known My Last Will and Testament, which begins "I leave you love/I leave you hope/I leave you faith/I leave you a respect for the use of power."… In January 1978 the mural was installed between the ceiling beams that face the entrance of the library, where it hangs today.