To conclude this series in celebration of Women’s History Month, we would like to present a contemporary of Alice Neel, Anna Russell Jones (1902-1995).
Anna Russell Jones in 1987
In 1920 Anna Russell Jones was the first African American woman to receive a scholarship from the Philadelphia Board of Education to attend Philadelphia School of Design for Women (PSDW). In 1925 she was the first African American woman to graduate from PSDW. She was among the first women to work as a freelance designer in Philadelphia and New York in the 1920s and 1930s. She was (or is believed to have been) the first African American woman from Philadelphia to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1942. Her ambition was boundless.
“She always told me I could do anything I wanted to do.” Anna Russell Jones, speaking of Dean Harriet Sartain.
1924-1925 PSDW catalog cover design by Anna Russell
Anna Russell Jones was born in Jersey City, NJ, the youngest daughter of a Pullman porter on the Pennsylvania Railroad. After her father’s death in 1911, her family moved to Philadelphia. She graduated from William Penn High School for Girls in 1920, and against convention and her family’s advice, she applied for college. With her scholarship from the Board of Education Jones attended PSDW for Textile Design. Upon graduation in 1924, she won three awards: for original rug design, original wallpaper design, and for her design of the 1924-1925 PSDW catalog cover. College Dean Harriet Sartain helped her find work as an in-house designer at James G. Speck Studio, a well established carpet design studio in Philadelphia.
“You see, I had three strikes against me: I was a woman, black, and a freelancer.”
In 1928, after four years at Speck Studio, Jones set out on her own. She established her own studio and began to seek commissions for her designs in Philadelphia and New York. This was not just unusual for the time, but almost unheard of. Gradually the Great Depression ended her freelance career, but she did manage to sell her wallpaper and carpet designs until 1935, no small feat for an African American woman in the architecture and design industry during the 1930s.
“I wanted to do it, so I did.”
Jones (left) working as a graphic artist for the WAAC
In 1942 Jones decided to enlist in the newly formed Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) — she was 40 years old. For three years she was stationed in Fort Huachuca, AZ, where she designed maps, posters and booklets for military publications. Before she was honorably discharged in 1945 Jones received the WAAC Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. After the war she studied medical illustration at Howard University, and in the 1950s she worked as a licensed practical nurse at Hahnemann University Hospital. In 1952 she married William Albert Marsh Jones Jr., a former elevator operator and Democratic committeeman in Germantown.
In 1986 Anna was awarded the Honor of Excellence Award from the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum (now African American Museum) in Philadelphia. And in 1987 she received an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Fine Arts, from Moore College of Art. She continued to paint until her death in 1995 at the age of 92.
For further information:
McMillan, Janet. “Success Against the Odds.” Philadelphia Inquirer, (Philadelphia, PA), November 23, 1986.
Richberg, Barbara J. “Anna R. Jones, 92, Pioneer In Many Fields.” Philadelphia Inquirer, (Philadelphia, PA), April 5, 1995.
Walls, Nina de Angeli. Art, industry, and women’s education in Philadelphia. Westport, Conn. : Bergin & Garvey, 2001.
Women designers in the U.S.A, 1900-2000: diversity and difference. Edited by Pat Kirkham. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.