top of page


50 Years/50 Collections: Louise Jefferson: Illustrator and Photographer

Jefferson in her New York City studio, undated.

Louise E. Jefferson was an illustrator, graphic designer, and cartographer, but she is perhaps best known for her work in photography. She was born in Washington, D.C. in 1908 and was the only child of Louise and Paul Jefferson. Her father was a calligrapher for the United States Treasury, and her mother made a living playing piano and singing aboard cruise ships on the Potomac River. From a young age Louise was encouraged to pursue a career in music, but she was determined to become a different kind of artist.

She began her training at Hunter College in New York City where she studied fine art, and then attended Columbia University where she studied graphic arts. During her time in New York City, Louise became involved with the Harlem Artist’s Guild and is credited as a founding member. She was an active member of the artistic community during the Harlem Renaissance becoming close friends with poet Langston Hughes and sharing an apartment with Pauli Murray, who would become an influential labor activist, lawyer, and priest.

At the start of her career Louise designed posters for the YWCA in New York City until she was discovered by the Friendship Press, the publishing branch for the National Council of Churches. By 1942, Louise was the Artistic Director for the Friendship Press where she controlled every aspect of the Press’s book productions. Jefferson retired from the Friendship press in 1960, but she remained busy designing book jackets and maps for publishing companies and universities.

Jefferson in Lucky Strike cigarettes ad. She was a lifelong smoker.

Once retired, Louise set her sights on the most ambitious project of her life. Over the course of several years, Louise made five trips to Africa so she could do research for what would become her book, The Decorative Arts of Africa. She travelled the continent extensively, visiting over fifteen countries. She used her photographs and drawings from her adventures to create The Decorative Arts of Africa, which was published in 1973. Containing over 300 illustrations, Louise describes her book “as a visual sampling of what the spirit and tempo of the African artist’s role has been in the past and what it continues to be today.”

In her later years, Jefferson settled down in the picturesque town of Litchfield Connecticut, where she maintained an art studio and could always be found with her beloved camera, ready to capture a photo at a moment’s notice. Louise spent the last remaining years of her life tending to her garden, entertaining friends, and taking snapshots around Litchfield. Louise passed away in 2002 at the age of 93.

The Louise E. Jefferson papers showcases over sixty years of creativity from a true Renaissance woman. Born before World War I, Louise lived through a remarkable century of human history. Her collection is a unique glimpse through the 20th century, as seen from the perspective of an artistically gifted African American woman.

Images from the Louise Jefferson papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

bottom of page