Born in Huntsville, Alabama, William Dawson grew up on a farm, where he learned to ride horses bareback. In 1923, he married and moved to Chicago, where he was employed for 38 years by produce distributor E.E. Aron at South Water Market and became one of the first black members of the Teamsters Union.
It was not until Dawson was semi-retired in 1965 at the age of 64 that he began seriously to devote his time to art. Working part-time as a security guard, Dawson passed time carving wood figures. When he retired completely, he focused all his energy on creating sculptures of men and women that range in size from several inches to several feet.
Dawson soon began using pieces of discarded lumber or old chair and table legs found in the neighborhood alleys to carve the totems and other figures for which he would become famous. Dawson’s work became internationally renowned as part of the 1982 travelling exhibition Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, which originated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Dawson became famous for taking First Lady Nancy Reagan’s arm at the show’s opening reception and personally leading her through the exhibition