This is a guest post by Iris Taylor, a senior cataloging specialist in the Geography and Map Division.
It is a common belief that you can acquire inspiration from a variety of people, places, or things. Seanna Tsung, a Library of Congress staff member, recently uncovered a unique collection of maps in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress that served as an inspiration to me! The collection consists of many inimitable pictorial maps created by an African American female, Louise E. Jefferson, whose cartographic skills have generally been hidden and not acknowledged.
The pictorial maps she created date between the 1930s and 1940s, which coincides with the Harlem Renaissance. During the Harlem Renaissance, many African Americans were able to experience a wonderfully new and vibrant freedom of creative expression. The African American culture flourished by celebrating ‘themselves as a people’. This cultural explosion produced various literary and visual art forms with a focus on race relations, inequality, and discrimination. The Harlem Renaissance produced the Jazz Age and allowed for the Negro Movement to thrive. Artisan’s such as sculptors, painters, printmakers, and even cartographers burst upon the scene. Louise E. Jefferson was one of the first female African American cartographers and a founding member of the Harlem Artists Guild.
Louise E. Jefferson well known throughout the African American community for her skills as an illustrator, calligrapher, art director, and photographer; however, her skills as a cartographer are missing from public records. Her contributions to the field of cartography are not documented in most of the traditional cartography resources. I was elated and overjoyed to discover her pioneering mapmaking contributions.
A native Washingtonian, she first learned to draw at an early age from her father. At Howard University, she continued to study art. After moving to New York City, she studied fine arts at Hunter College and Columbia University. While in college, Louise did freelance work for various major publication houses. After graduation, she broke the color barrier in several professional capacities. One example includes becoming the first female African American artistic director for the children and young adult branch of the Friendship Press, the publishing branch for the National Council of Churches. During her tenure at Friendship Press she produced a myriad of pictorial maps. She worked for various African American organizations including the NAACP, for whom she designed holiday seals for over 40 years.
Although an accomplished professional, life was not always easy for Jefferson. During challenging times, she persevered. For example, in 1936, she illustrated and published her first book. Beautifully illustrated, this songbook entitled, We Sing America, depicted children playing. However, the governor of Georgia banned the book because it contained images of black and white children playing together.
Louise’s skill as an illustrator is purposeful and evident in her cartography. Her maps use a combination of symbols. Vivid and life-like images such as major rivers, cities, animals, agriculture, and hospitals. Her representations of prominent people and places are exceptional. Her pictorial maps contain intricate details, ornate illustrations, various occupations, and all populations. Included are vignettes of prominent people in politics, music, literature, as well as historical information of people from Africa, China, and Native Americans. Her cartography includes a sequence of historical tragedies, such as the infamous “Trail of Tears.”
Jefferson’s maps depict ethnic disparities, racial tolerance, social injustices, and refutes racial stereotypes in the United States and around the world. She was also committed to the health and welfare of children. Her quest to present cartographic maps illustrates her vision of cultural vibrancy and national peace. In addition, her pictorial maps yielded a unique visual recognizable flare as a cartographer. In the maps above and the two below, you will observe Louise E. Jefferson’s ability to create powerful visual literacy.
Louise E. Jefferson passed away in 2002 at the age of 93. She is known as a photographer, illustrator, calligrapher, and now a cartographer. Her maps told the stories of the people and populations geographically placed within her maps. Her illustrations did not hold back the sentiment of the times; thus, telling the stories as seen through the eyes of all the people depicted in her maps. Jefferson’s work is very inspirational; she was a true female African American Harlem Renaissance cartographic pioneer. I was pleased to learn about this African American cartographer, and hopefully there are others waiting to be discovered.
- See the catalog records for maps, photographs, illustrations, and books by Louise E. Jefferson.
- Read other African American History blog posts from around the Library!
- Read more about Jefferson and her work in the Louise E. Jefferson papers, held by the Amistad Research Center an archive associated with Tulane University.