Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of May Howard Jackson, 1877-1931

By Jameilah Wyatt-Buford, Hampton University

The notable artist was born May Howard on September 7, 1877, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents, Floarda Howard and Sallie Durham, were members of the middle class who provided their daughter with a privileged upbringing and a shared love of fine arts. Howard became the first black woman granted a scholarship from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, entering in 1895 and graduating in 1899. While there, Howard met William T. S. Jackson, whom she married in 1902.

William Jackson was a math teacher who later became a high school principal at the Preparatory High School for Negro Youth (now Paul L. Dunbar High School), the nation's premier African-American public high school in that period. William Jackson's position at the M Street High School, where he was be the head of their math department, was the driving force behind the new couple's move to Washington D.C. It is in this district that May Howard Jackson could work from home and meet prominent figures who esteemed her work and supported her activism.

In March 1913, May Howard Jackson joined the woman suffrage parade sponsored by the National American Woman Suffrage Association as reported in the April 1913 issue of The Crisis. Other newspaper coverage notes that she spoke on art to the College Alumnae Club in DC in April 1920.

May Howard Jackson's career as a sculptor reflected the racial tensions of her time. Jackson was biracial and her features favored those of a white woman. Her ethnicity often caused her work to be discredited in the white community once it was discovered that she was, in fact, a black woman. This often made Jackson feel like less of an artist. The frustration and self-doubt that she carried as a result of discrimination was often visible in her work, such as Head of a Negro Child (1929), Shell-Baby in Bronze (1929), and The Mulatto Mother and her Child (1929). Jackson's sculptured busts—including those of W.E.B DuBois (1929), Rev. Francis J. Grimke (1929)—received rave reviews from the black community for her ability to capture emotion through the features of those whom she depicted. Jackson is said to have been "one of the first black sculptors to deliberately use America's racial problems in her work." Jackson's work was featured in Crisis magazine and her 1928 bust of Kelly Miller won her a bronze award from the Harmon Foundation. Her art was exhibited in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the National Academy of Design, as well as Vehoff Gallery in New York City. In 1922, she became an instructor at Howard University where she taught sculpture and modeling from life subjects.

On July 12, 1931, May Howard Jackson passed away in Long Island, New York. In paying homage to Jackson, the October 1931 edition of The Crisis read, "The death of May Howard Jackson is a loss to art." Though she died feeling a sense of bitterness towards the path which her career took, the quality of Jackson's artwork has endured and remains notable today.


Leslie King-Hammond, "Jackson, May Howard (1877-1931)," in Black Women in America, Vol 1 (Indiana University Press, 1993); Amy Helene Kirschke, ed., Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance (University Press of Mississippi, 2014); Sandra L. West, "Jackson, May Howard (1877-1931), sculptor," in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File, 2003); Carrie W. Clifford, "Suffrage Paraders," The Crisis, April, 1913, p. 296 [LINK]; "May Howard Jackson," The Crisis, October 1931; Letters between W.E.B. DuBois and May Howard Jackson, 1929, W.E.B. DuBois Papers (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

"College Alumnae Club," Washington Evening Star, 23 April 1920, p. 32. There are half a dozen other brief notes in the Evening Star between 1900 and 1920 describing recent works completed by Jackson. No additional references have been found linking May Howard Jackson to the woman suffrage movement or the Black women's club movement.

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