Reference and Research Services

Contributed by Sharon Yoon, Museum Collections Assistant

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy the most while working at PAFA is assisting researchers with research requests. The archives contain a trove of information that is vital for not only documenting institutional history, but also the artists that have trained or exhibited here at the Academy.

Because of our long history, we receive a wide range of research requests. The most common questions are regarding an artwork’s provenance, exhibition history, or whether an artist studied at PAFA.

With access being a core component of the archives’ mission, we welcome all researchers to visit and consult sources in-person. Understanding that not everyone is able to physically come to PAFA, staff work to provide assistance through email—if you have a question about PAFA history, we will (most likely) have answers (! 

For the past few months, I was able to gain insights on historical research methods, as well as learn a lot about PAFA’s archival collection and which collections would lead to the best records.

For this blog post, I’d like to share the thought process of how I handled a recent research request. A scholar sent an email requesting more information on May Howard Jackson (1877-1931), a Black artist and sculptor who attended classes at the Academy beginning in 1895. The researcher was specifically interested in Jackson’s student records, particularly the details of the scholarship that afforded her the opportunity to attend PAFA as well as her activities during her time at PAFA.

Unfortunately, the student records collected from this time period were not as comprehensive as our 20th century student records. Since there was no designated academic student file for Jackson, some digging into other sources was required. Many secondary sources online suggested Jackson attended PAFA in 1895 so that was my starting date. With this date, this led me to look into our student registers—large ledger books that listed students by year. Sifting through the student register, I found her entry! Note that these specific student registers were signed by the student/artist themselves.

See line 92; Student Register 1894-1904 (RG.03.03.04) 

Given that the student register only provided a name, an address, a class she took, and the scholarship, it could be implied that this was the same May Howard Jackson that the researcher requested information on. However, to be a bit more thorough, I used the address listed for Howard in the student register and cross-referenced it with Philadelphia census records. The 1890 Philadelphia census records were largely destroyed by fire but looking into the 1900 records confirmed that May Howard (Jackson) did live at the address written in the student register.  This was further confirmed by looking up maps of Philadelphia wards and checking that her address in the student register fell in the geographic area of the 2nd ward. The provided house number, names of known family members, and occupations listed in the census also lined up with known information on May Howard Jackson. 

See line 66, 67.  “United States Census, 1900”, , FamilySearch ( :
Tue Mar 05 19:56:11 UTC 2024), Entry for Floarda Howard and May Howard, 1900. 

The next step was to find more information on the scholarship she received to attend the Academy. Listed as “Scholarship Bd Ed.”, I looked into the minutes of the Committee on Instruction and Board of Directors from the 1890s in hopes of finding details or conditions of the scholarship. In a February 1895 meeting of the Board of Directors, it was recorded that

“The President referred to the efforts made by the Academy to secure an appropriation from the city, and said that a bill appropriating $5000 had passed through Councils and had been signed by the Mayor; and in accordance with the request of the Board of Public Education, the President was authorized to form a committee of three to confer with a similar committee from that body on the subject of the scholarships to be given.” 

The minutes confirmed that a scholarship was established in 1895 by the Academy in conjunction with the Board of Public Education. Other notes (not pictured) stated that the scholarship would enact in the fall of 1895. 

Reading into the Committee on Instruction minutes was next, as I hoped there would be more illuminating information regarding the conditions of the scholarship and how May Howard Jackson would have been a recipient. Notes taken a few years after 1895 clearly outlined the scholarship’s requirements— namely that students of the Public Industrial Art School could register for an examination to be awarded one. This was a great find, as secondary sources and articles published about May Howard Jackson state that she attended J. Liberty Tadd’s Philadelphia Art School— more well known as the Public Industrial Art School of Philadelphia. She was among the first students to attend classes at the Academy with this scholarship, and the first Black female student to attend on scholarship. 

Committee on Instruction records, Minutes 1895-1903 

With this information at hand, I was able to provide the researcher with detailed answers about May Howard Jackson and personally learn more about this artist and the Academy’s history.

PAFA has two works by May Howard Jackson: 

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