Thomas was born September 22, 1891 in Columbus, Georgia. In 1924, she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Howard University, becoming the first graduate of the program. In 1934, she became the first African American woman to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University. She was also the first African American woman to have a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
After 35 years of teaching in the Washington D. C. public school system, Thomas retired in 1960 but continued to offer her weekly art classes to children from Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. The Columbus Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum hold important collections of Thomas’ paintings and papers. “A Life in Art: Alma Thomas 1891 – 1978” was published in 1981 and “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings” was published in 1998.