Today’s Black History NJ feature spotlights artist Anna Russell Jones. Born in Jersey City in 1902, she was the youngest of three children for parents John Russel and Anna Evans. When her father died in 1911, she and her family relocated to Philadelphia. Jones is best known for her textile designs, as well as her work in graphic design.
Anna Russell Jones is a graduate of William Penn High School for Girls (1920). Although it was uncommon for young African American women to go to college during this time, Jones couldn’t resist. Despite her family’s disapproval, she wanted to further her education; after applying to colleges anyway, she became the first African American woman to receive a four-year scholarship from the Philadelphia Board of Education. Four years later, she became the first African American to graduate from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. (The school is now known as Moore College of Art & Design.)
During her time in college, Jones won awards for her original textile designs. After earning her degree in textile design, she soon found work in the textile field. At first, Anna Russell Jones joined carpet-design studio, James G. Speck Studio, immediately after graduation. Then, after learning the ropes, she opened her own studio in 1928. Through this new studio, she started selling original carpet and wallpaper designs to local Philadelphia businesses. But it wasn’t long until her reach extended to New York and even Canada in the 1930s.
Among many other “firsts”, Anna Russell Jones is the first African American woman from Philadelphia to join the US Army. After enlisting in 1942, she served as a member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in Arizona during World War II; of course, putting her skills to use, she designed maps and other content for military publications. During her time with the WAAC, she received several awards; including the WAAC Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal. After earning an honorable discharge in 1945, she returned to Philadelphia.
Upon her return, Jones enrolled in graduate work at her alma mater. Before finishing those studies, however, she enrolled at Howard University in the Nation’s capital to study medical illustration. After completing this course work, she became a licensed practical nurse at Hahnemann University Hospital in Center City, Philadelphia. (Unfortunately, this historic hospital closed in 2019.) Jones also did medical illustration and graphic design during the latter part of her lifetime. In fact, even after retiring she enjoyed doing freelance artwork for clients.
Anna Russell Jones During Her Final Years
In 1986, the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia selected Jones for their Honor of Excellence Award. (This museum still exists today as the African American Museum.) Then, in 1987, Jones was awarded a Doctor of Fine Arts honorary degree from Moore College of Art & Design.
Anna Russell Jones spent the next few years painting and doing graphic design, but mostly for pleasure. In 1995, Jones passed away at the age of 92. During her life, her passion for art and education fueled her perseverance. Her work elevated the textile, graphic design, military, and medical fields, making her an iconic Civil Rights figure. She leaves behind a profound legacy in her home states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.