Charles Wilbert White was born on April 2, 1917 to Ethel Gary, a domestic servant, and Charles White Sr, a railroad and construction worker, on the South Side of Chicago. White’s mother bought him an oil paint set when White was seven years old, which hooked White on art and painting. White also played music as a child, studied modern dance, and was part of theatre groups, however he has stated that art was his first and foremost passion. At a young age, White’s mother also brought White to the Art Institute of Chicago where White would read and look at paintings– developing a particular interest in the works of Winslow Homer and George Inness. During the Great Depression, White tried to conceal his art passion in fear of embarrassment, however, this ended when White got a job painting signs at the age of fourteen. Since White had little money growing up, he often painted on whatever surfaces he could find including shirts, cardboard, and window blinds. White later learned how to mix paints by sitting in on an Art Institute of Chicago painting class that was taking place at a park near his home in Chicago.
During his teenage years, White felt isolated both at school and at home as his father had become an alcoholic and he was one of few black kids at his school and was therefore not allowed to act in school plays. Instead of going to school, White often preferred to go to the Art Institute of Chicago or the public library where White became interested in authors, Jack London, Mark Twain, and Alain Locke. Locke’s books in particular, served as White’s teacher in African-American history, which would later inspire his art. White did not graduated from high school in 1937, since he had flunked a year due to refusing to go to class. Despite this, White received a full scholarship to be a full-time student at theArt Institute of Chicago. While in school, White cited Mitchell Siporin, Francis Chapin, and Aaron Bohrod as his influences. To pay the costs of materials in art school, White became a cook, using his mother’s instruction and recipes. White later became an art teacher at St. Elizabeth Catholic High School to pay for his material costs. White also began working as a Works Progress Administration artist.