Alma Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, spending her childhood in environs she recalled later with idyllic nostalgia. Equally fond were her memories of her grandfather’s plantation in Alabama:
It was a beauty. I remember the gorgeous sunsets; I remember the lovely fowl, every kind of fowl . . . Then, too, I would go wandering through the plantation finding the most unusual wildflowers [as quoted by Nikki A. Greene in Alma Thomas (2016), p. 53].
She moved as a teenager to Washington, D.C., where she lived and worked much of the rest of her life. She attended Howard University where she began studying home economics, but, after discovering a thirst for painting, she graduated with a degree in fine art, in 1924. She was the first student to earn a bachelor’s in fine art in Howard University’s history. She went on to earn a masters in art education from Columbia University in 1934, while working at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. She worked in education until her retirement in 1960, after which she devoted herself to her painting, which continued to develop throughout her long and varied career. By the mid-60s, however, arthritis in her hands slowed down her painting. She remained a vocal advocate for African-Americans in the arts, enjoying critical success in her last years.