Incomplet Design History

Louise Jefferson

Episode Summary

This episode looks into the contributions of African American designer Louise Jefferson to graphic design history.

Episode Notes

Louise Jefferson was a graphic designer, photographer, illustrator, and civil rights activist. Born in Washington, DC, Jefferson spent much of her career in Harlem, New York. It was there that she became the first female African-American art director in publishing. While working as the art director for the Friendship Press, she also did freelance work for civil rights publications such as Opportunity (which encouraged young Black writers) and Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP. She worked on a children’s book titled We Sing America that was intended to educate children about the realities of being black in America. It was controversial, and even banned in Georgia. Jefferson later illustrated E. Jefferson Murphy’s book Understanding Africa, which showed the cultural richness and diversity of Africa. The project she seemed most proud of was her own book The Decorative Arts of Africa which documented the cultures and lifestyle of the peoples of Africa. The book took several years and five trips to Africa to complete. Jefferson lived in times and places of turmoil. She fought racial discrimination and stood for social justice. She worked tirelessly to increase opportunities for her fellow Black Americans through programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Harlem Artists Guild. Her entire career was characterized by her determination to improve life and create more opportunity for Black Americans.


1908 – b Louise Jefferson in Washington, DC.
1919 – Race riots break out across DC.
1935 –  Louise Jefferson moves to Harlem in New York and becomes a photographer. The first Harlem riot breaks out. Jefferson helps found the Harlem Artists Guild to fund public works post-Depression.
1936 – We Sing America is published, featuring illustrations from Jefferson. Intended to educate children about the realities of being Black in America and including depictions of desegregated groups of children, the book is quickly banned in Georgia.
1940 – Louise visits the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama during the period of what would become known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Louise captures the sense of depression and grief within the community on film.
1942 – Louise becomes art director at Friendship Press, becoming the first female African American art director in the publishing industry.
1969 – Jefferson illustrates the educational book Understanding Africa and works on her own book Decorative Arts of Africa.
1973 – Decorative Arts of Africa is published, becoming one of the first large collections documenting African culture, containing over 300 illustrations and photographs. Jefferson later retires.
2002 – d Louise Jefferson in Litchfield, Connecticut.


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