Alma Thomas, an African-American artist, was a successful Washington avant-garde painter, despite the barriers presented by her race and gender. Born in 1891 in Georgia, as a young girl Thomas experienced the effects of racial segregation, preventing her from completing her education. Reacting to the constraints they faced, her family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1907. After relocating, Thomas entered Armstrong Technical High School, her first exposure to formal art training. Upon graduating, Thomas attended the Miner Teachers Normal School, specializing in early childhood education. After teaching for six years in Delaware, she returned to Washington in 1921 to enter Howard University. With the urging of her professor, James Herring, Thomas became a student in his burgeoning art department. After graduation in 1924, she taught at Shaw Junior High School, where she remained until her retirement in 1960. In 1935 she received a Master of Arts degree in art education from Columbia University, New York.
Alma Thomas worked for more than twenty-five years in a relatively representational mode, incorporating elements from the styles of Cézanne and Matisse. She altered her approach late in her career to one that showed her assimilation of abstract expressionism and the focus on color that dominated the work of the Washington Color School painters. Thomas had become acquainted with Gene Davis and Morris Louis, two leaders of the Washington Color School, through her long association with the Barnett-Aden Gallery, where their work was shown. In 1943, Thomas had helped Alonzo Aden found the Barnett-Aden Gallery, the site of the first exhibitions of Washington color painters such as Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis. Between 1950 and 1960, she took courses in creative painting and color theory at American University, where many of the Washington artists were teachers. Thomas incorporated aspects of their styles—strong design, large-scale format, and pure colors—into her abstractions. However, she favored a more gestural style, drawing pencil lines, which are usually visible in the finished work, and retaining active brushstrokes.
When Thomas retired from teaching in 1960, she devoted herself to painting full-time and was given her first one-person show at Dupont Theater, an art cinema in Washington. In 1972, both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art held solo exhibitions of her work. Thomas died in Washington in 1978.