Bearden was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. His family moved him to New York City as a toddler, and their household soon became a meeting place for major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1929 he graduated from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He completed his studies at New York University (NYU), graduating with a degree in science and education in 1935.
After he started to focus more on his art and less on athletics, he took courses in art that led to him being a lead cartoonist and art editor for the Eucleian Society’s (a secretive student society at NYU) monthly journal, The Medley.