Alma Thomas was 15 years old in 1907 when she and her family left Columbus, Georgia for Washington, D.C. They were part of the Great Migration, when many African American families left the South to escape racial oppression and violence, as well as poor work and educational prospects. Although Washington was highly segregated, it did offer an array of jobs, excellent public schools for African American children, and Howard University.
The future artist availed herself fully of these new opportunities. She took her first art classes at Armstrong Manual Training High School, then attended Miner Teachers College, and became Howard University’s first fine arts graduate in 1924. That same year she launched what would be a nearly three-decade-long career teaching art at Shaw Junior High School.
In the 1930s Thomas helped found the Barnett-Aden Gallery, where D.C.’s black artists associated and showed their work. However, it was not until she retired from teaching in 1960 that Thomas was able to truly focus on her painting, developing the abstract style for which she became known, along with her association with the Washington Color School. Her first abstract show took place at Howard University in 1966, when she was 75 years old. Only six years later, she was given a retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (closed 2014) and also became the first African American woman to hold a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York City.
Today Alma Thomas’s paintings hang in many museums and galleries, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a short distance from this callbox.