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Louise E. Jefferson – A Hidden African American Cartographer

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.

Americans of Negro lineage. Map by Louise E. Jefferson, 1946. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. This 1946 pictorial map includes an inset with the Black population of the United States during the 1940s. The map displays names, images, places, and people important to the Black culture in the United States and southeastern Canada. In the cartouche, the map contains the title, landmarks, historical notes, and text.

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.

Africa: A Friendship Map. Map by Louis E. Jefferson, 1945. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. With the knowledge she gained from traveling extensively in Africa, Jefferson created a map with many beautiful aspects of the continent including a unique affirmative message opposing African stereotypes.

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.

Indians of the United States of America. Map by Louise E. Jefferson, 1944. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Louise provides in this 1944 pictorial map, a comprehensive and beautiful depiction of Native American history. This practical resource contains positive images with a stylized Native American motif of over 100 tribes that existed in the United States and southeastern Canada. The map effectively addresses the diversity of the Native American people. It also documents the forced removal from their ancestral lands and relocation to Oklahoma along the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

Uprooted people of the U.S.A. Map by Louise E. Jefferson, 1945. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Louise’s 1945 map of the United States contain a written description about the massive population dislocations, movements, and the changing social conditions that were brought about by the Second World War. When most reports appealed to patriotic sentiments and bolstered morale, her map displays “Japanese relocation centers,” “Mexican migration,” and examples of “abandoned” homes, farms, and villages in the heartland. The map list “some emergency agencies formed to regulate general living conditions,” and a decorative frame surrounding the map includes images of people representing various kinds of work.

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.

N.A.A.C.P. birthday ball, Feb. 26th, Golden Gate Ballroom, Count Basie and his Orchestra. Poster by Louise E. Jefferson, 1943. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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