Louise E. Jefferson's Design Journey

From birth, Louise E. Jefferson was determined to become an artist on her own terms. This spirit led her across the physical and socioeconomic world, becoming known as a true renaissance woman. New Orleans-based writer Jana King remembers Jefferson and the obstacles she overcame for this Design Journey.


Louise E. Jefferson is known for being “an artist at doing her best,” according to civic leader Lester B. Granger of the National Urban League. She put herself on the map through her work as a cartographer, created numerous poster designs as a freelancer, and would go down in history as the first African American to hold a director position in the publishing industry while working at the Friendship Press.

Her creativity took root early on, when her father, a calligrapher for the United States Treasury Department, was giving her drawing lessons at home. She went on to privately study fine art and commercial design, later attending both Howard University and the School of Fine Arts at Hunter College.

Once she moved to Harlem to attend Hunter, she found a place within the local African American scene, becoming a founding member of the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935. This organization aimed to develop the potential of African American artists by working with other groups that helped struggling artists to overcome obstacles they faced due to socio-economic position in their community, such as racism, poverty, and standards of living.

Louise Jefferson Ndebele in black leather drawing
Drawing: “Ndebele in Black Leather,” undated. From the Louise Jefferson Papers. Courtesy of the Amistad Research Center.

As many freelancers do, Jefferson battled financial obstacles while living in New York City. Her work with the Young Women’s Christian Association, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and National Urban League brought the majority of her income, but she often supplemented by taking on roommates. Occasionally she was forced to part with her camera, selling it to make ends meet. Eventually her financial strain lessened, when recurring freelance work with the National Council of Churches’ publishing branch, a children and young adult publication company named the Friendship Press, led to a full time position. She would continue freelancing while working with the Friendship Press throughout her career.

Rather than dismiss her creative potential in various crafts in order to focus on one method of creative expression, Jefferson chose to remain passionate about it all: illustration, design, and photography. She used each of these to supplement the others in her design process, taking photographs for her personal collection to reference for later design projects. While we know her photography work for its historic value, she didn’t consider herself to be a photographer. In fact, in an interview with the Litchfield Inquirer in 1986, she became irritated by the label, saying "I wish people would stop calling me a photographer.”

“While we know her photography work for its historic value, Jefferson chose to remain passionate about all crafts: illustration, design, and photography.”

It was well known, though, that Jefferson kept a camera on a shelf next to her front door in her New York apartment, because she never knew what would happen right outside it. Remaining open to the opportunity to capture a moment led to many of her most notable photos, such as the photo of Rosa Parks signing her arrest papers in Montgomery, Alabama.

Louise would often stray from her location on assignment while traveling around the south. She once wandered away from a sporting event she was working at because she heard crying in a field. She came across a young boy in tattered clothing who was upset because no one would give him a penny. “At that time, in that place,” Jefferson said, “A penny was worth a hundred dollars. I didn’t have a penny, so I gave him a nickel. I wanted to see his reaction, but that only made him cry harder.”

The photo, now known as “Alabama Boy,” is considered a monumental depiction of the Great Depression. He sits on steps of a house with his knee showing through a hole in his overalls and his toes poking out of his shoes. The emotional draw of the portrait is thought to symbolize the exasperated struggle of the African American community during a time when the country as a whole struggled financially.

Louise Jefferson Alabama Boy photo
People: “Alabama Boy,” 10.5 x 13.5; black and white, undated. Photograph by Louise Jefferson. Courtesy of the Amistad Research Center.

Jefferson created the tools that others used to navigate the world around them, both physically and empathetically. Her work often led her to sociopolitical projects, such as illustrating E. Jefferson Murphy’s Understanding Africa, a book published with the goal to provide guidance for Americans learning about a culture that was entirely foreign to them. As Murphy’s foreword states: “When one thinks of Europe, one thinks at the same time of the Germans, the French, the Italians, the Austrians, the Poles, and many other nationalities. But in the case of Africa, most Americans think only of ‘Africans.’”

“Jefferson created the tools that others used to navigate the world around them.”

She would often work as a cartographer, illustrating the use of land by groups of people across the United States. In works such as “Makers of the United States,” she highlights the various contributions of Indigenous People across the U.S. This perspective offered more insight to the history of the land than a geographical map would. A cartographer’s work includes as much research of the land being mapped out as it does design work. Jefferson loved the research and travel required by her job, and was known to take long trips to European countries when she could get time away from her day job.

These ideas drove Jefferson to write her own book, Decorations of Africa, which is hailed as her most prominent work. She traveled to Africa five times over a decade following her retirement in 1960, discovering and documenting cultures through sketch, writing, and photography. The trip was funded by a Ford Foundation Grant to challenge areas of inequality, such as racism in the United States. After her work was published in 1973, she spoke of this project as one of her favorite life experiences, as it allowed her to visit parts of the world she otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t have known because of the political climate of the time.

Her fascination with African culture, no doubt influenced by the African American commitment to reclaim their culture following the abolishment of slavery, is apparent in many aspects of her work. Her freelance designs for publications and marketing materials nodded toward the bright colors and chunky shapes she discovered in African villages.

Louise Jefferson The American Negro Book cover
Bookjacket cover of “The Story of the American Negro,” by Ina Corinne Brown. Published by Friendship Press. Design by Louise Jefferson. Courtesy of the Amistad Research Center.

In line with Jefferson’s work as a cartographer and consistent photographer, she seemed to always be documenting and noting data around her, whether qualitative or quantitative. Her journeys across Africa were no different. She documented every bit of the experience she had in sketchbooks and on camera film. She said on several occasions that she was motivated to publish a book comparing the facial features of African Americans and those living on the African continent. She seemed to work to make sense of the world around her, and draw lines between seemingly separate entities.

Professionally, Louise E. Jefferson was often the first of her kind. Though she was the first female African American to hold a director position in the publishing industry, she noted few occasions in which her race was an obstacle for her. Rather than being an African American artist, she was known first and foremost as an artist. Lester B. Granger of the National Urban league said of Jefferson, “Her associates will not think of her as ‘a Negro artist’ nor will she think of herself as ‘an unusual Negro.’”

Though she downplayed obstacles she faced as a black creator, Louise spent most of her professional life in the realm of social change. She created poster designs for various National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and National Urban League Guild events. Her work illustrating the 1963 songbook  “We Sing America” was banned by the governor of Georgia because it depicted children of different races playing together. He also had several copies of the book burned.

Achieving her best and fullest creative potential, Jefferson was known to be high energy and was once quoted as saying she forced herself to stay busy in order to fully realize the ideas she often had. This is often attributed to a case of infantile paralysis she experienced after coming down with polio in her early childhood. In her adolescence, she was fond of swimming and tennis, and remained a sports fan throughout her life. Her athletic energy continued until she passed away in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 2002 at the age of 96.

In her retirement it was often joked that her activities resembled that of a full-time worker. Though she had retired before her work started for the Decorative Arts of Africa, Jefferson continued to take on freelance design and photography work. She was a creative force, one that was fueled by ideas and had no time for the naysayers who only saw her skin color or gender.


Timeline

  • 1925 Moved to New York to study graphic arts
  • 1935 Founding member of the Harlem Artist's Guild
  • 1942 Artistic director at the Friendship Press
  • 1960-1970 Traveled to Africa to observe culture
  • 1973 Publshed Decorative Arts of Africa

Jana King headshotJana King is a creative entrepreneur and digital content creator living and learning in New Orleans, LA. You can connect with her online using @janakingonline.

 

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The 2018 Design Journeys series is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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