Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, on September 22, 1891. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1907 with her family who were seeking educational opportunities that were not as easy to come by in the South during the Jim Crow era. Thomas attended Howard University and initially studied costume design before changing course at the urging of a professor, James Vernon Herring, who entreated her to become the first student in the new art department.
After graduating in 1924 with a degree in fine arts (and perhaps the first Black woman in the country to do so), she shared her gift by becoming a teacher. She plied her trade at Shaw Jr. High from 1925 until 1960.
She remained busy during her 35 years as an educator. In 1934, she earned her master’s degree from Teachers College of Columbia. Four years later, she created the first art gallery in the D.C. public school system. In 1943, she collaborated with her former professor James Herring and artist Alonzo J. Aden to create one of the first African American art galleries in the U.S., the Barnett Aden Gallery.
She returned her focus to her own art in the 1950s and developed an emphasis on color while working with other artists at American University. Concurrently, she took an interest in the Washington Color School, whose works consisted of abstract shapes of pure color.
In 1964, Thomas suffered an arthritic attack that she feared might render her unable to continue painting, but she persevered and altered her style to capture the natural beauty she saw outside her window. She continued to thrive into her 70s, and in 1972, she had exhibitions at the Whitney Gallery and the Corcoran Art Gallery.
Alma Thomas died on February 24, 1978. In 2016, almost 40 years after her passing, one of her abstract paintings from 1966 entitled Resurrection became the first painting by a Black woman to hang in the White House. Another one of Thomas’s paintings, entitled Pansies In Washington, hangs in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art.