Charles Alston (1907–77) was the supervisor of the Harlem Hospital Center murals, leading a staff of 35 artists and assistants and becoming the first African American project supervisor of the Federal Art Project. Alston was also the first African American to teach at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Students League and, in 1969, to have been appointed the painter member of the Art Commission of the City of New York.
Alston came from a leading African American family in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was related to Romare Bearden through his mother's second marriage. He attended Columbia University as an undergraduate and received an M.F.A. at Columbia University's Teachers College in 1931. After graduating he worked with Augusta Savage at the Harlem Arts Workshop, and when the program required more space he secured an additional facility at 306 West 141st Street. The space became a center for the Harlem art community and was known simply as "306."
Charles Alston's Columbia University yearbook photo, 1929.
Alston was influenced by Mexican muralists such as Josť Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who all used murals to inspire people towards social activism. When Diego Rivera was painting his famous mural at Rockefeller Center, which was destroyed because of its political content, Alston would frequently visit the Mexican artist, communicating in French, their only common language. Both Rivera and Orozco visited Harlem several times in an effort to win support for black artists.
At various times in his career, Alston worked as a sculptor, a painter, a cartoonist, and a graphic illustrator in publishing. During World War II, he worked at the Office of War Information and Public Information, creating cartoons and posters to mobilize the black community to join in the American war effort. He taught at the City University of New York from 1970 to 1977. His work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.