During a lesson at a South Chicago high school in the 1930s, a young Charles White stood up and asked his teacher if there were black heroes in American history.
"He was told to shut up and sit down," recalled Frances White, widow of the late artist, who died at 61 in 1979. "And he stopped studying for the rest of the year."
That story and many others reveal the character of an artist who went on to convey African-American history through his work, including a mural of educator Mary McLeod Bethune at the Exposition Park-Bethune library.
On Wednesday, the library will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the mural of Bethune, a champion of education for African-Americans. Bethune, who died in 1955, founded Bethune-Cookman College and was the founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women.
White's mural of Bethune, commissioned by the city in 1978, is a 5-by-7-foot oil on canvas.
In the painting, Bethune is surrounded by a small family. A chart of the alphabet and an open book around a young student symbolize her commitment to education.
In the background, White painted Bethune's "Last Will and Testament." It reads:
"I leave you love;
I leave you hope;
I leave you faith;
I leave you a respect for the use of power;
I leave you the challenge of developing confidence;
I leave you dignity;
I leave you a thirst for education;
I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men;
I leave you finally the responsibility to our young people."
Frances White said the mural, the last of five the artist painted, was a labor of love.
"He was tremendously thrilled to do the mural because he respected Bethune a great deal," she said. "And he loved graphic arts and murals because they were much more public art than paintings in a museum."
White, whose work has gained international acclaim, was paid $3,000 to paint the mural. His works have recently sold for $70,000 to $150,000, said Benjamin Horowitz, owner of the Heritage Art Gallery and the executor of White's estate.
Wednesday's tribute will take place at the Exposition Park-Bethune Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, 3665 S. Vermont Ave. Information: (213) 732-0169.