In 2018, I gave a keynote entitled, “The B.O.L.D. Principle: On the perspectives of Black designers in Graphic Design”, at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. Throughout my research on this topic, I had found myself time and again uncovering the habitually omitted and overlooked stories of Black designers. On discovering one particular story, I jotted the woman’s name in the margins of my work, promising to return. On that day, as I hastily traversed the halls of Moore College to get to the auditorium where my presentation would take place, it occurred to me that now, almost a year later, I still had not returned to that name. I felt I had neglected an ancestor of sorts, her presence was all around me: she, who had walked the very paths I was walking now. She had left her mark and I owed it to her to make sure that mark was seen, sustained – up to the present moment and far into the future. This invitation to Moore College was no coincidence – this was by design.
Mrs. Anna Russell Jones – and so many others like her – have existed and contributed to a field and industry that has too frequently failed to acknowledge, attribute, and compensate their contribution. I should have known her story a long time ago. We all should.
Jones dared to claim her space as a designer almost a century ago, at Moore College of Art – then called the Philadelphia School of Design for Women – as its first African American graduate in 1925. In her lifetime, Jones embodied many of the characteristics and achievements so many of us Designers still aspire to today: entrepreneurship, multiple awards and archived works. She can also claim many “firsts”. And she achieved all of this before notions of diversity were en vogue and decades prior to the Civil Rights movement.
Born at the turn of the twentieth century, in 1902, Jones possessed prodigious talent and ambition. With the death of her father when she was nine, Jones was raised between relatives in New Jersey and her mother in Philadelphia. Her proclivity for art was noticeable early in her youth. In Nadine Patterson’s biographical documentary, Praisesong for a Pioneering Spirit, Jones’ is intimately portrayed in her own words, reminiscing about her high school years, “they always recommend for a Negro the home economics course. I must have been good in art. I don’t know. I don’t remember. I remember always, if I had a pencil in my hand, I would draw...and most of the Negroes, they did not know about art…”(1) Jones goes on to explain how often art would be discouraged because of its difficulty in securing stable employment, though those warnings did not deter young Anna.
This steadfast attitude would epitomize Jones’ life and afford her a college scholarship from the Philadelphia Board of Education, making her the first African American woman to receive such an award.
As Jones shares in Praisesong, at Moore College she was “the only negro around” and when visitors would question her presence, school administration would cloak her African American identity by claiming that she was Filipino or Japanese, despite the reality outside the institution walls: Philadelphia was the second largest metropolitan African American population in the United States (2). While there was an existing Black community in Philadelphia from its founding, like a number of northern cities, Philadelphia’s Black population grew tremendously during the decades of the early 1900s due to the Great Migration – and more than doubled, rising from 63,000 in 1900 to 134,000 in 1920 (3). Despite being the only African American student and the duplicitous behavior of the administration, Jones completed her studies at Moore College, in the end, receiving not just her degree, but numerous awards for rug and wallpaper designs and the honor of having a drawing of hers selected for the cover of the school yearbook. Shortly after graduating, she took on her first Design position at James G. Speck Studio where she spent four years.
It seems fitting that Jones would come of age in her artistic endeavors in Philadelphia, where so many Black cultural institutions were birthed, such as the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and The African American Museum in Philadelphia, among others. Perhaps inspired by the atmosphere of creativity characterized by the Harlem Renaissance, the identity-shaping of the New Negro Movement – and, most certainly, by her faith, about which she is vocal – in 1928, at the age of 26, Jones ventured into entrepreneurship, opening her own design studio in Philadelphia.
From 1929 - 1942, her studio years, Jones created designs for wallpaper and carpets that she sold to companies in Philadelphia, further afield, in New York, and even as far away as Canada (4). Given her virtuosity in the visual realm, Jones also worked in other formats, designing posters and illustrating and selling Christmas cards that portrayed young African American students. In her surviving writings, Jones relates an experience while working to acquire a new client, where the owners offered to hire her into their all-male firm. She declined – even after the men warned her of the difficulty of the field and how much more difficult it would be for her as a solo woman – deciding that God wants her to, “go out on her own” (5).
During this era, being a professional career woman, particularly in Design, and as an African American, was rare. Most occupations held by women were in domestic and personal labor, clerical vocations and factory jobs, with women making up approximately 20% of the labor force (6). However, Jones was determined, and as the United States moved to a more consumer-based economy in the first half of the twentieth century, the Graphic Design profession flourished, as the need to communicate messages – often geared towards consumption – also grew. Particularly in the 1930s, with the Great Depression, the field was used as a vehicle to jumpstart the economy.
Jones felt the impact of the Depression as sales of luxuries like wallpaper and carpeting waned, but true to her resolute and inventive character, she found opportunity: up until the start of World War II publicly lecturing and giving lessons on African American history , in tandem designing and selling educational posters, a number of which depicted “African American history and featured [her] illustrations of prominent African Americans, including George Washington Carver and Sojourner Truth.” (7)
However, the economic downturn of the Great Depression eventually took a toll on Jones’ business, and in 1942, she enlisted in the Army – specifically the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). She was also a first in this endeavor, in that she was the very first African American woman from Philadelphia to join the Armed Forces. While there were no defined design or art positions in the Army, Jones found a way to transfer her skills to the military’s needs: she took on the role of civil service illustrator and created a breadth of work from maps to booklets. Prior to her honorable discharge in 1945, Jones was awarded the WAAC Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. (8)
Jones’ propensity for education continued after her service, and she returned to her alma mater, completing post-graduate study in textiles and also going on to pursue an education in medical illustration at Howard University. In the continuing unfolding of her career, she became a licensed practical nurse at Hahnemann University Hospital in 1950, all while still practicing her art. (9)
For Jones, no path was off limits and she approached her various occupations with authenticity and agency, as is best demonstrated in her own words: “Anything you want is in your possession to get, but you have to pay a price for it – and you know within your heart the price you have to pay.”
An attempt to encapsulate the remarkable achievements and richness of Anna Russell Jones in a single essay can only scratch the surface. For me – as a black woman who has navigated the paths of artist, designer, studio founder, and corporate Design executive – Jones embodies so much of the dimensionality and evolution of my journey. In a single word, she is my muse – in her role as a pioneer in the art and design profession and as an inspiring, ever-inventive, trailblazing spirit. Her story and work deserve inclusion in the Design history books and her name should be a part of the canon we profess and uphold.
Shani Sandy, a Berlin School Alum of Class 14, has worked in design for over 20 years, moving from an education in Fine Arts and Computer Art to a career in Graphic and Web Design, from her own studio to Executive Creative Director at S&P Global and in 2018 joining IBM as a Design Executive leading their design-driven transformation.
(1) Anna Russell Jones: Praisesong for a Pioneering Spirit, Nadine M. Patterson, https://vimeo.com/299144424,
(4) Anna Russell Jones papers
(5) Anna Russell Jones: Praisesong for a Pioneering Spirit, Nadine M. Patterson, https://vimeo.com/299144424,
(7) Anna Russell Jones papers