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Known for her large-scale abstract paintings comprised of rhythmic marks of exuberant color, Alma Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891. In 1907, the family moved north to escape the rise of violence against black Americans in Georgia and settled in Washington, DC.

Thomas attended the Armstrong Manual Training High School and, from 1911 to 1913, the Miner Normal School for teacher training. In 1921, Thomas returned to DC and enrolled in courses at Howard University. When James Herring founded the art department at Howard in 1922, Thomas became its first major; two years later, she was also the first to graduate with a BS in fine arts. From 1930 to 1934, Thomas took summer classes at Columbia University Teachers College, earning her master's in art education. Throughout the 1930s, she continued to work in education and organize community art programs such as the Marionette Club, the School Arts League, and the Junior High School Arts Club. 

In 1943, she became vice president of the Barnett Aden Gallery. Dedicated to avant-garde art, Barnett Aden was the first gallery in the nation's segregated capital to exhibit work by both black and white artists. In the late 1940s, Thomas became one of the DC-area artists and art teachers affiliated with the "Little Paris Studio," a collective started by Lois Mailou Jones and Céline Tabary that met weekly and organized annual exhibitions. The group became an important venue for African American artists at the time.

In the 1950s, Thomas started to develop the method and style that earned her a place among the most innovative American painters of the twentieth century. She embarked on a decade-long formal study of art at American University with painter Jacob Kainen. Departing from realism, Thomas loosened up her brushwork and focused more intently on fields of color. By the late 1950s, she found her voice in abstraction, patterning geometric shapes in rich colors against solid backgrounds. In 1960, at sixty-nine, Thomas retired from teaching to devote her time exclusively to art. She had her first solo exhibition at the Dupont Theatre Art Gallery that same year. In 1963, her work was shown in New York City for the first time at the Artists for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) exhibition, mounted by the prestigious Martha Jackson Gallery. 

In 1972, Thomas was given two major solo exhibitions—Alma Thomas at the Whitney Museum and Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. With Alma Thomas, she became the first African American woman given a one-person show at the Whitney. That same year, the mayor of DC, Walter Washington, declared September 9 to be Alma Thomas Day, and in celebration, local TV and radio stations aired programs about her life and work. She continued to exhibit in group and solo shows throughout the remainder of the decade, and in 1977, her work was included in the Corcoran's 35th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting.

The monumental canvases Thomas created in the 1960s and 1970s were informed by the local abstract movement in DC known as the Washington Color School, which included Morris Louis, Sam Gilliam, and Kenneth Noland. However, her interest in color experimentation aligned her more closely to Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, and Wassily Kandinsky. Inspired by nature, recent scientific discoveries, and her observations of earthly and celestial phenomena, Thomas's work was devoid of overt political content. Her dedication to abstraction reflected her belief that modern art, at its best, could transcend political and historical concerns. But her preference for abstract, joyously expressionistic, gestural strokes of vibrant color was not accompanied by a retreat from historical and social realities. The level of Thomas's success in the 1960s and 1970s meant that she could devote herself exclusively to painting. Still, she continued to passionately advocate arts education for underserved communities. In addition to her involvement with Artists for CORE, Thomas organized art programs and taught art classes to local youth. In 1975, Howard University honored her with its Alumni of Achievement Award, a recognition of her importance to the history of art and the local African American communities touched by her considerable talent and dedication as an artist and a teacher.

Her work has been acquired by some of the most prominent American institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The White House Historical Association, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.