Alma Woodsy Thomas was born on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia. Just to give a little context. It’s the year of the Conference of Native American Chiefs at Pine Ridge. The Music Hall in New York (later known as Carnegie Hall) has its grand opening and first public performance, with Peter Tchaikovsky as guest conductor. It’s the year Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective Sherlock Holmes appears in The Strand Magazine (in London) for the first time. This is 26 years after the Civil War ended.
Alma Thomas was the oldest of six children and was born with impaired hearing. Her mother, Amelia Cantey, said it was because of a scare she and her husband had during her pregnancy. Because of the scary night when a lynch mob came to the house for Amelia’s husband, John Harris, Alma’s father. The mob left them alone, however, when they realized who it was. John Harris wasn’t just anybody, but a big-time businessman, and one of the most respected Black people in Columbus.
The Thomas family lived in a large middle-class home on top of a hill surrounded by trees, gardens and flowers. Education was heavily emphasized in her the family and Alma had aunts that were school teachers who would invite other educators out to Columbus to visit. According to my favorite source, “A History of African-American Artists” by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, Booker T. Washington popped in every now and then as well.
In the summers, she spent time at her maternal grandfather’s cotton plantation, which was next to his brother’s plantation, across the river in Alabama – who was White.
Alma’s mama love, loved, loved loved bright colors. And painted flowers on black velvet which was a super popular thing in both America and England. Actually, the tradition of painting on black velvet turns out to be an ancient one. It all started in Kashmir, where the fabric was first made. They started off being religious and painted by priests, but then Marco Polo ended up introducing these paintings to Western Europe. So. There’s that.
Perhaps things would go on like this in Georgia for the Thomas’ for a while longer, but the event that changed the trajectory of everyone in the household was the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.
By 1900, Atlanta’s population was around 90,000 and 35,000 of those folks were Black. That’s roughly 39%. And for the White Elite, it made them awfully nervous – with job competition and their perception of entitlement and all, they worked diligently to expand upon Jim Crow segregation laws. Especially, those pertaining to seating on public transportation and the segregation of neighborhoods.
Back to Atlanta. So, what really got the White status quo up in arms, was the rise of the Black Elite. The Black Elite were moving and shaking and building and voting… They were educated and connected and respected and… feared. It made some people… uncomfortable.
Now, keep in mind, the Black Elite, in general, was not a big fan of Saloons just like a lot of the White Elite, however, a lot of the White citizens started blaming Black Saloon patrons for the rise in crime. Prohibitionists in the city were all over that. But, if you know American history then it won’t surprise you that, they were particularly concerned that these saloon goers might commit sexual violence against White women.
But that was not a tool to touch the Black Elite. No. Politics became a tool for that, as the 1906 governor’s race instigated the tension by playing to the fears of White folks, each candidate addressing how to keep, or how they were already keeping, Black folks in their place with disenfranchisement.
In addition to the debates of governor candidates trying to prove the others weren’t oppressive enough to be governor, several local newspapers fanned the flames by printing a plethora of editorials, cartoons and stories about the fears and warnings of the threat of Black men to White women.
I’m going to give you a super-brief account. Okay? According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Saturday, September 22, newspapers in Atlanta reported on four alleged assaults of local Black men against local White women. It’s really important to note here, that none of these reports were ever substantiated. So extra editions were churned out embellishing on these unsubstantiated stories, riling up folks – adding fuel to an already blazing fire. So, then thousands of White men and boys gathered downtown. By evening, the crowd morphed into a mob and then poured out into the streets and began attacking Black people. Hundreds were attacked. The properties of Black-owned businesses were destroyed. Several Black people, men and women, were beaten and killed. The brutality and rioting continued until 2 a.m. when it started storming.
The next day, Black folks began to arm themselves, getting ready for a second wave of attacks. Two days later, on Monday, September 24, a group of heavily armed Black folks held a meeting outside Atlanta and apparently the police found out about the meeting, and was scared that there was about to be a retaliation. The police raided it and a shootout occurred. One policeman was killed. Then three companies of heavily armed militia were dispatched and they disarmed and arrested 250 Black men.
News spread of this event internationally and by the time it reached Alma Thomas’s parents – I know I just went off into the weeds, but remember this is Alma Thomas’s story – her parents were extremely spooked by this. As I’m sure most Black folks were. The event, along with other things, like the quality of education the children were receiving, simmered in their minds, and the next year, in 1907, Mom and Dad packed up the kids and moved to Washington D.C.
Later, Alma Thomas would tell, educator and artist, David Driskell (whose story we’ve covered earlier on this podcast), and said that, before they crossed the Potomac River, their parents told her and her younger sister to take off their shoes and knock off the dust of Georgia, to begin a new life.
Thomas attended Samuel Chapman Armstrong Technical High School, which today is known as Friendship Armstrong Academy, where she excelled at mathematics and science, and had her little heart set on becoming an architect. However, the art room at the high school really got her juices flowing too.
Thomas’s dream of being an architect didn’t seem to pan out, although, at the age of 21, she did create a model of a modern school house that she designed, which was then exhibited at The Smithsonian in 1912.
There may been a bit of a self-esteem issue during, but especially after, high school that prevented Thomas from perusing those earlier dreams. After graduation, she later attended the Miner Teachers College (originally known as, Normal School for Colored Girls – now known as, the University of the District of Columbia). Here, she experienced feelings of inadequacy. She felt outclassed by girls verbally more expressive than she was, so instead of following her big dream, she studied kindergarten teaching. After leaving College, she then taught arts and crafts for six years at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, making costumes for children’s carnivals and circuses and staging puppet shows.
According to the research in a paper titled, “Black Women in Delaware’s History,” The Garrett Settlement House was named after Harriet Tubman’s friend and fellow conductor on the Underground Railroad, Thomas Garrett. It was founded in 1911 by the City Federation of Colored Women and offered classes to black adults and children, including a kindergarten, as well as recreational activities.
Thomas had an itch to further her education. She knew she had more to offer than what she was doing, so then made the leap to go back to school to get her Master’s degree at Columbia University. She attended their Teachers College, and her thesis was on the use of marionettes. Here, in New York, she studied under Tony Sarg, a renown German American puppeteer and illustrator who was born in Guatemala, who has been credited for modernizing puppetry. Thomas was fascinated by marionettes because they were able to convey so much uninhibited expression.
After receiving her Master’s, Thomas returned and directed several marionette shows at Shaw Junior High School in D.C. Her goal was to open children up to their abilities and stretch their imaginations.
She seem to really love this brand of theater, but her interests reached a little further. Perhaps it was the designing and dressing of her beloved marionettes, or children’s costumes in Delaware, but at some point, she began to play with the idea of venturing further into costume design. And in 1921, Thomas enrolled in school again to study just that. This time, at Howard University.
- New Georgia Encyclopedia https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/atlanta-race-riot-of-1906/
- Biggest US Cities https://www.biggestuscities.com/city/atlanta-georgia
- Fair Housing Act of 1968 https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/aboutfheo/history
- Black Women in Delaware’s History https://www1.udel.edu/BlackHistory/blackwomen.html
- Bearden, Romare and Henderson, Harry, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, 1993, Pantheon, pp 447-453