Thomas, Alma (1891–1978)

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Thomas, Alma (1891–1978)

African-American teacher and painter. Born on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia; died on February 25, 1978; daughter of John Harris Thomas (a businessman) and Amelia (Cantey) Thomas (a teacher); graduated from Miner Teachers Normal School; Howard University, B.S., 1924; graduated from Columbia University Graduate School, 1934.

Taught art classes at Shaw Junior High School, Washington, D.C. (1924–60); painted series of works, including Earth Paintings and Space Paintings; held a solo exhibition, Du Pont Theater Art Gallery, Washington, D.C. (1960); exhibited at the Whitney Museum, New York City (1972).

African-American visual artist Alma Thomas was born in 1891 to a middle-class family in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of four girls. She grew up in rural Georgia, then moved with her family to Washington, D.C., in 1906. Thomas became interested in painting at Armstrong Technical High School, but planned a career in education and completed teacher preparation at Miner Teachers Normal School. She then taught art and theater at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House for several years in Wilmington, Delaware, before entering Howard University where she continued her studies in the visual arts under James Vernon Herring. She was the first graduate of Howard's art program in 1924. Her works from this period are realistic and brought her little critical recognition.

After graduating from Howard, Thomas became a teacher in Washington public schools, primarily teaching art at the elementary level. She completed a master's degree at Columbia University in 1934, and took additional courses in painting at American University in Washington, all the while continuing to teach. In the 1940s, Thomas became associated with the Barnett-Aden Gallery, an artistic center which played an important role in the development of African-American visual culture.

Thomas retired from teaching in 1960, and began to paint full time. In that year she was given her first solo exhibition, at the Du Pont Theater Art Gallery in Washington. While confined to her bedroom after developing severe arthritis, Thomas began to see the patterns of color and light in the gardens outside her window in new ways. This change in perception led to dramatic changes in her painting styles as she experimented with abstract artistic styles. Rather than trying to represent exactly what she saw, Thomas began to work with bright dabs and strokes of pigment reminiscent of the Impressionist school. Her new work brought considerable critical acclaim. In 1969 and 1970, she was invited to display her work in the Nixon White House in addition to many art gallery shows. In 1972, the Whitney Museum in New York mounted a solo exhibition of her paintings; after this exhibition Thomas was an undeniably important part of both Washington, D.C., and the national artistic community. Despite suffering from crippling arthritis, Thomas continued to paint regularly until her death in 1978, at age 86, following surgery.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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