Louise E. Jefferson, the daughter of a calligrapher for the United States Treasury Department, was encouraged to draw from a young age. Her father taught her his craft at home and she later studied fine and commercial art in private lessons and at Howard University. She moved to New York to continue her education at the School of Fine Arts at Hunter College.
In Harlem, Jefferson came in contact with other African-American artists and in 1935 she was a founding member of the Harlem Artists Guild, a program sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. Other members of the Guild included Augusta Savage, Aaron Douglas, Selma Burke, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Jacob Lawrence.
During her early years in New York City, Jefferson struggled financially. She earned money by taking free-lance drawing work, including posters for the YWCA for seventy-five cents. A freelance job with the National Council of Churches’ publishing operation, Friendship Press, led to a full-time position. Jefferson eventually became the press’s art director. Jefferson was perhaps the first African-American woman to hold such a position in the publishing industry.
In addition to her work with Friendship Press, Jefferson freelanced for major publishing houses, such as Viking and Doubleday, throughout her career. She was known as a designer of both skill and artistry. Jefferson designed pieces for a number of African-American publications, including covers for Opportunity and The Crisis. For many years, she created publicity materials for the National Urban League Guild’s Beaux-Arts Ball and NAACP programs. Her success did not shield her from racist attitudes, however; in 1936, We Sing America, a song book Jefferson illustrated with images of black and white children, was banned in Georgia and that state’s governor, Eugene Talmadge, ordered that copies of the book be burned.
Jefferson was an accomplished photographer as well as a designer. Carrying a camera with her at all times enabled her to photograph many notable African Americans of her day. Her body of work includes images of a diverse group of individuals—from Thurgood Marshall to Lena Horne.
A number of grants from the Ford Foundation enabled Jefferson to travel to Africa where she studied native decorative arts. Her book The Decorative Arts of Africa was the result of her travel and study. The images in this major book on the subject are almost entirely Jefferson’s own drawings and photographs.