May Howard Jackson

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May Howard Jackson
Born(1877-09-07)September 7, 1877
NationalityAfrican American
Known forSculptor
Spouse(s)William Sherman Jackson
AwardsHarmon Foundation, 1928

May Howard Jackson (September 7, 1877 – 1931) was an African-American sculptor.[1]

She was known as "one of the first black sculptors to ... deliberately use America's racial problems" as the theme of her art.[2]

Early life[edit]

On September 7, 1877, May Howard Jackson was born to a middle class couple, Floarda Howard and Sallie Durham in Philadelphia; the city where she grew up. She came from a supportive family that was relatively privileged and interested in the fine arts


Jackson attended J. Liberty Tadd's art school in Philadelphia, where she was trained with "New Methods in Education" that emphasized the use of visual arts and their importance in strengthening both left and right sides of the brain. There, she studied "drawing, designing, free-hand drawing, working designs in monochrome, modeling, wood carving, and the use of tools,"(Kirschke).

After that, she continued her avant-garde art training more intensely under a full scholarship at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She was the first African American woman to attend PAFA and started studying in 1895 where she continued for four years. Here, she studied under renowned American Impressionist William Merritt Chase, and also under Paris-trained academic sculptors Charles Grafly and John Joseph Boyle, who had been a student of Thomas Eakins, (Kirschke).

With such elaborate and diverse training at a young age, she had an advantage among her peers, with one of the best art educations of any African American of the 19th century, (Kirschke).


After graduating, Jackson met and married mathematics teacher and high school principal, william Sherman Jackson. He taught at the Preparatory High School for Negro Youth, known as the first public high school for African Americans, (Farrington). Here is where her sculpture of Paul Laurance Dunbar, done in 1919 and completed in bronze, resides; as the school would eventually be known as Dunbar High. This bronze portrait has a textured, impressionistic surface that allows for a lively play of light off the surface. The impressionistic style could have been a result of being influenced after being taught under American Impressionist William Merritt Chase at PAFA, (Kirschke).

After marrying, she moved to Washington D.C. in 1902. Her husband was appointed head of the math department at the M Street High School, and she worked as a portrait sculptor throughout her life, (Farrington). She maintained her own home studio in Washington D.C. and an additional studio in New York, where she discussed her work with visitors, (Kirschke). Aside from portrait sculpting, she spent two years teaching at Howard University. There she taught and influenced James Porter, who went on to write one of the first comprehensive histories of African-American art, (Farrington). As an art historian, though, James was not impressed by her artwork and said after her death that her work had, "No great originality in any of the pieces she attempted," (Aberjhani). Despite that, she became so well known by 1922 that she was approached and asked to interact the newly formed art department at the school.

At some point, Meta Warrick Fuller offered Jackson to accompany her during her study abroad. However, Jackson declined the invitation because she thought it was not necessary to travel to Europe to further her education, (Farrington). As a result of not traveling to Europe, Jackson was somewhat isolated from her peers and was able to create her own vision that infused her work with a unique style that was at first ignored for its difference from the popular style of the time.

Her style was provocative for expressing the features of the multiracial in American society. Though she had developed her own unique style, this style still adhered to academic tradition. Many galleries were not interested in her subject matter, as she dedicated most of her work to objective portraits of children, family members, and influential African Americans, (Farrington).

Jackson exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. in 1915, the Veehoff Gallery in New York City in 1919, and the National Academy of Design in 1916 and 1928. At the Veeroff Gallery, she was reviewed by the Washington Star: "The last is very remarkable and dramatic work, touching upon the mysteries of heredity in a way which is exceedingly striking...Her work has always shown promise, but these pieces now on exhibit indicate exceptional gift, for they are not merely well modeled, but individual and significant," (Farrington).

Jackson was also involved in the New Negro Movement which promoted a better understanding of the African American. This could show through her sculptures as well. Although she was known in Black Art circles, she was unable to sell her work and held a lifelong grudge against the art community, feeling unappreciated, (Kirschke). Leslie King-Hammond, an art historian, later praised Jackson's, "efforts to address...without compromise and without sentimentality, the issues of race and class, especially as they affected mulattos," (Farrington).

Despite her talent, few galleries were willing to offer her exhibition space. With legal racial segregation and disenfranchisement of most blacks having been in force across the South since the turn of the century, topics such as racial mixing were taboo in general. Laws against miscegenation had been proposed in both federal and state legislatures after Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected as President in 1912.

Jackson's work and professional achievements were often overlooked, which left her feeling unappreciated. The Bontempses' astuste analysis (a journal of the Harlem Renaissance) says that Jackson's greatest handicap was most likely psychological and unappreciated by the artist, but also says that she dealt with "the sorts of color-caste prejudices that tormented so many other near-white Black women in post-Reconstruction America" and she "may very well have reflected undercurrents of self-hatred and personal guilt symptomatic of a kind of racial schizophrenia and motivated by a powerful, perhaps irrational assimilationist dream," (Kirschke). Though her work appeared time and time again in the Crisis and even on the cover as early as 1919, this is what she had to say about it in 1929, "I felt no satisfaction! Only deep sense of injustice, something that has followed me and my efforts all my life." In that same year, she did win a coveted bronze medal and a one hundred dollar prize from the Harmon Foundation and had five works exhibited in the Harmon show, (Kirschke). Two of these works were then illustrated in the catalogue, the works being "Kelly Miller", and "Head of a Negro Child".

Jackson's contributions to American art were not appreciated until after her death and the public's tepid response to her work weighed on her. W. E. B. Du Bois described her in a postscript as, "At once bitter and fierce with energy, cynical of praise and above all at odds with life and people..With her sensitive soul, she needed encouragement and contacts and delicate appreciation. Instead of this, she ran into the shadows of the Color Line...In the case of May Howard Jackson the contradictions and idiotic ramifications of the Color Line tore her soul asunder...She met rebuffs in her attempts to study and in her attempts at her chosen ideal of portraying the American mulatto type," (Farrington).


For centuries Europeans and Africans had formed unions and marriages. Though there is no proof that she was bi-racial, Jackson was known to have been mistaken for being Caucasian. Often, when she was thought to be white she was treated very well, but when her racial identity was found out she was subjected to humiliating rebuffs. Jackson addresses the issues of identity in her work "Mulatto Mother and Child"(1929) where she responded to her "near-whiteness". This caused problems for her throughout her career but also inspired one of her most well known pieces.

At one point, she applied for a membership to the Washington Society of Fine Arts. her application was at first accepted, but then later rejected when the society found out she was African American. Another instance was when the National Academy of Design sent someone to her home to ask if she was of "Negro blood" and later declined to see any more of her work, (Farrington). Aside from that, Jackson expressed a fascination with the wide variety of features among African Americans and this became evident in her work. Pieces that expressed this love are works such as "Head of a Negro Child" (1916), "Mulatto Mother and Child" (1929), and "Shell-Baby in Bronze" (1929). These three pieces defined her sculptures. Jackson was a unique representative of the Weltzensang of the Jazz Age that embraced and exalted Black Beauty, (Kirschke).


Jackson did not have any children of her own, but she and her husband took in their nephew, Sargent Claude Johnson when he was fifteen after both of his parents died. It is believed that he may have been tutored by Jackson, as he grew up to be a renowned sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance himself. His work can be characterized as a reductive modernism, whereas Jackson followed a more academic approach to her sculptures, (Kirschke).

She was so well known by the 1920s that a Harlem Renaissance poet, Georgia Douglas Johnson, wrote a poem about her. The poem was rather contrary and spoke about her professional difficulties and how that could have resulted from her grim outlook on life; but also suggests that she deserved more praise and attention than she was getting. The poem, "To May Howard Jackson, Sculptor," is as follows, (Kirschke),

You saw the vision in the face of clay
And fixed it through the magic of a hand
Obedient unto the will's command
In forms impervious to Time's decay:
Historian of bloods that interplay
Confusedly within a cryptic land
You've Chiseled, and your work of art shall stand
To gem the archives of a better day
Alone, far from the touch of kindred mind
You've mounted with a grim, determined zeal,
Despite environment austere, unkind,
Or frozen fingers clenched to your appeal
You've held the ardor of your first ideal
Robed in queenly majesty, resaned


As a sculptress, Jackson was accomplished enough to be counted among the Pantheon of great American Sculptors; despite her inability to sell at exhibits due to race. She died in the year 1931. She is entombed at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.


The Crisis, Vol. 12, No. 3, July 1916.[3]

Mrs May Howard Jackson, Veerhoff Gallery, Washington, DC. From the Washington Star, "Of the three works reviewed, …touching upon the mysteries of heredity in a way which is exceedingly striking" Adding: "her work has always shown promise, but these pieces now on exhibition indicate exceptional gift, for they are not merely well modeled, but individual and significant." [4]

Selected works[edit]

"Kelly Miller"


  • The New York Emancipation Exhibition (1913)
  • The Corcoran Art Gallery (1915)
  • The National Academy of Design (1916)
  • The Veerhoff Gallery, Washington D.C. (1916) [8]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Arna Alexander Bontemps and Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bontemps (eds.), eds. (2001). "African-American Women Artists: An Historical Perspective". Black Feminist Cultural Criticism. Keyworks in cultural studies. Malden, Mass: Blackwell. pp. 133–137. ISBN 0631222391.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
  3. ^ "Letter from W. E. B. Du Bois to May Howard Jackson, March 14, 1929", Credo.
  4. ^ The Crisis - W. E. B. Dubois, p. 115.
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Artists You May or May Not Know :)". Pinterest. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  7. ^ "☉♌ Al Zubra". Pinterest. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  8. ^ a b Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer (1990). American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall. ISBN 0816187320.
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Slave Boy, 1899, Mary Howard Jackson, 21×21.5, Bronze", Lafayette.
  11. ^ "A story in clay". The Crisis. October 1916. p. 278-179.

1.Kirschke Amy, Woman Artists of the Harlem Renaissance (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2014) Pages 115-156. 2.Farrington, Lisa E. (2011). Creating their own image: history of African American Women Artists (Print book; English ed.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. pp. Pp. 64–75. ISBN 9780199767601. 3.Aberjhani, Sandra L. West. (2003) Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. New York; New York: Checkmark Books. P 169. ISBN 0816045402.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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African American firsts