Alma Thomas was born the eldest of four children to John Harris Thomas, a businessman, and Amelia Cantey Thomas, a dress designer, in Columbus, Georgia, 1891. In 1906 the family moved to the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., relocating due to racial violence in Georgia and the public school system of Washington. As a child she showed artistic interest, making puppets and sculptures at home.Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School, where she took her first art classes. After graduating from high school in 1911, she studied kindergarten education at Miner Normal School until 1913. She served as a substitute teacher in Washington until 1914 when she obtained a permanent teaching position on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Two years later in 1916, she started teaching kindergarten at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, staying there until 1923
-Alma Thomas, 1970
Alma Thomas' early work was representational in manner, and then and upon classes at Howard and training under James V. Herring and Lois Mailou Jones her work became more abstract. Thomas would not be recognized as a professional artist until her retirement from teaching in 1960, when she enrolled in classes at American University. There she learned about the Color Field movement and theory from Joe Summerford and Jacob Kainen and became interested in the use of color and composition. Within twelve years after her first class at American she began creating Color Field paintings, inspired by the work of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism. She worked out of the kitchen in her house, creating works like Watusi (Hard Edge) (1963), a manipulation of the Matisse cutout The Snail, in which Thomas shifted shapes around and changed the colors that Matisse used, and named it after a Chubby Checker song.