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‘Trailblazer’ Anna Russell Jones is getting long-overdue recognition as the African American Museum reopens to visitors

The museum will reintroduce the world to an overlooked trailblazer when it reopens Thursday for the first time since last year.

Dejáy B. Duckett, director of curatorial services, walks through the "Anna Russell Jones: The Art of Design" exhibit at the African American Museum. The exhibit is on display from May 6 to Sept. 12.
Dejáy B. Duckett, director of curatorial services, walks through the "Anna Russell Jones: The Art of Design" exhibit at the African American Museum. The exhibit is on display from May 6 to Sept. 12.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

When the African American Museum in Philadelphia reopens Thursday after more than a year of pandemic shutdown, it will reintroduce Philadelphia and the world to Anna Russell Jones (1902-1995), an overlooked American artist with an extraordinary backstory.

Jones, a designer of textiles and graphics, “was an early-20th-century trailblazer,” said Ivan Henderson, vice president of programming at the AAMP. Among her many accomplishments, she is recognized as the first Black woman to graduate, in the mid-1920s, from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now the Moore College of Art and Design.

She would go on to a freelance career as an artist — a career almost unheard of for a Black woman in the early decades of the 20th century — and wartime service in the Women’s Army Corps, with advanced studies later at both Moore and Howard University. She lived most of her life here. The exhibit runs through Sept. 12.

Philadelphians were supposed to see the exhibit at AAMP in March of 2020, as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women — at least theoretically — the right to vote. (In the South, especially, it would be decades, until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that Black women and men would be assured the vote.)

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The exhibit, “Anna Russell Jones: The Art of Design,” was halfway installed when the museum closed on March 13, 2020, to comply with a statewide shutdown order. The show had been intended to open about two weeks later, said Dejáy Duckett, AAMP’s director of curatorial services.

“In our archives, we have hundreds of her designs and correspondence,” Duckett said. “She kept all of her receipts. We really have a portrait of her life.”

While the focus in 2020 was to recognize women’s right to vote, the show now opens as voting rights, human rights, and basic civil rights for Black people are at the center of the national discourse.

“We’re still seeing a heightened awareness for the complexity of Black legacies and the beauty of them — going beyond the surface,” Henderson said. “We will stay the course with Anna, and she will teach us about the early 20th century and the social and political machinations that Black women had to go through. This was at a time when we thought they were not able to make the moves that she was making.”

A documentary also tells Jones’ story

Part of the museum’s public programming will include the screening of a documentary, Anna Russell Jones: Praisesong for a Pioneering Spirit, by Philadelphia filmmaker Nadine Patterson, part of a series of films she created with her mother, Marlene G. Patterson, to tell the untold stories of people from North Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

They worked on the film from 1989 to 1993. It was completed two years before Jones died.

In the film, the viewer meets a still-determined and sharp-minded woman, who bristled at both the racism she experienced from white people and the defeatism she saw in Black people, who questioned her: What on earth was a Black woman going to do with a college degree in art?

She says in the film that she stayed away from people who discouraged her from pursuing art.

Jones was born Anna Rachel Malinda Russell in Jersey City, N.J., in 1902. Her father, John C. Russell, worked as a Pullman porter. That was a good job for Black men at the turn of the 20th century; still, Jones said it was a struggle for him to provide a good income for the family.

After her father died when Anna was 9, her mother, Anna M. Evans Russell, eventually settled the family in Philadelphia, where Anna graduated from the William Penn High School for Girls in 1920. She began drawing in high school, and upon graduation was the first Black woman student awarded the city’s Board of Education four-year scholarship.

The scholarship set her on her way to the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, where she accrued honors that included awards for original rug design, original wallpaper design, and a catalog cover she’d designed.

With the help of a college dean, she found work after graduation as an in-house designer at James G. Speck Studio, a carpet design studio in Philadelphia. She worked at Speck’s for four years, and in 1928, went out on her own, starting her own studio and seeking commissions for her designs in Philadelphia and New York.

It was a remarkable achievement for a Black woman artist of the 1920s, said Huewayne Watson, guest curator of the AAMP exhibit. Eventually, however, the Great Depression, and the fact that textile manufacturers began moving to the South, ended her freelance career.

Jones joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1942 at age 40. Assigned to Fort Huachuca in Arizona, she worked as a graphic artist and designed maps, posters, booklets, and other projects for military publications.

After the Army, Jones returned to Moore where she completed postgraduate work in textiles. She also studied medical illustration at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington.

It wasn’t until well into her career that Jones married, at age 51. Her husband, William Albert Marsh Jones Jr., was a one-time jazz musician who also held a day job as an elevator operator at City Hall. He died in 1986 after they’d been married 34 years.

‘You have to be fearless’

Nadine Patterson, the documentary’s director, said making the film about Jones served as a blueprint for her own work as a Black woman independent filmmaker: “You have to be fearless when you’re a Black woman artist. You’re going to go into spaces where no one looks like you. She was going into design carpet companies, in a room full of men, white men.”

But it was Patterson’s mother, Marlene, who came up with the idea to make a film about Jones for their North Philadelphia series, after seeing an AAMP exhibit of the artist’s work in the late 1980s.

While Jones lived mostly in the northwestern part of the city, she lived for a time with her older brother Warner on the 3800 block of Smedley Street in the Tioga-Nicetown area.

AAMP exhibition curator Watson first discovered Jones’ work almost by happenstance.

After completing a master’s degree in African American studies at Columbia University in 2011, Watson arrived in Philadelphia in 2012 to work at the AAMP as an Institute of Museum and Library Services fellow.

One day, he saw one of Jones’ designs on display, but not in a public gallery. It was hung in a common area where some of the museum staff worked.

He said he was fascinated by its color and detail. “It was a pretty sizable piece that I saw, maybe 40 inches wide by 35 or 40 inches, and it had a floral pattern and was very ornamental,” he said. “In terms of its thematic structure, I could see the hand of the artist. It was hand-painted.

“With all this handiwork that went into creating the pattern, I knew it had to be the work of someone who was well-trained.”

‘A particular wisdom and toughness’

Watson combed through the museum’s archives to learn more about Jones and her development as an artist. New to Philadelphia, he soon found his way to Moore and began to research Jones’ work there, eventually giving a lecture on her life at the school, where he then went on to earn a master’s of fine arts degree.

Watson is now an instructor in African and African American Studies at Arizona State University, in Tempe. But he is on the East Coast this week, and plans to be part of the reopening.

When he gave a lecture about Jones in February 2020 in Chicago, at the annual conference of the College Art Association, the governing body for fine arts in academia, he said the response he heard was: We don’t know this person. You’re telling us something we don’t already know.

Watson said rediscovering Jones’ work reminded him of so many Black women artists and writers who have gone unnoticed and unheralded. Her story, he said, reminds him of Zora Neale Hurston, who came to fame during the Harlem Renaissance and had been largely forgotten for decades before the novelist Alice Walker wrote about her in 1975.

“She was someone who understood that being Black is a struggle,” Watson said of Jones.

“For anyone who could place limits on Black life, what she demonstrates is that one can exceed the pain and constraints” that others may try to impose, he said.

“There’s a particular kind of wisdom and toughness. But not a hardening of the soul and body and spirit. She’s always smiling in her spirit.”


Anna Russell Jones: The Art of Design

May 6 through Sept. 12 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St.

Museum hours are noon to 5 p.m. Thu.-Sun., with three timed slots for guests to visit (noon to 1:15 p.m., 1:45 to 3 p.m., and 3:30 to 4:45 p.m.), separated by a half-hour break for cleaning.

Details at 215-574-0380 or Tickets can be purchased in advance online. There will also be self-service kiosks for buying tickets on-site.