Nellie Mae Rowe

Educator Resource

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in collaboration with the Springfield Museum of Art, have developed multidisciplinary teaching resources based upon the art and life of Nellie Mae Rowe. Through a social studies lens, students evaluate the concept of freedom as it was applied to white and Black Americans during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights and Post-Civil Rights Eras. From an art studies lens, students analyze the rules of art and explore art as a means of free self-expression.

Who was Nellie Mae Rowe?

Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982) was an African American artist from Georgia. Her work is considered Folk Art because she was self-taught and her work represents the lifestyles and traditions of the deep South. She is best known for brightly colored and whimsical drawings that represented events from her daily life and nightly dreams. She also made art for herself, not to sell, from whatever materials were at hand (

During the last fifteen years of her life, Nellie Mae Rowe welcomed visitors to her home, or “Playhouse,” which she decorated with found-object installations, handmade dolls, chewing-gum sculptures, and hundreds of drawings. Her art is exhibited at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA and will be exhibited at the Springfield Museum of Art through July 10, 2022.

I didn’t go to school to learn drawing. I guessed at it when I was a little gal. Because we had to go to the fields, pick cotton and all like that, I didn’t have a chance to draw like I do now, and every chance I had, I would get my pencil, get down on the floor and draw until they said, “Nellie, let’s go.” At night I would get through with everything, get ready for bed, get my pencil and draw something. That was just in me and it is still in me. I would draw whatever I thought of, just like I do now.

An Interview with Nellie Mae Rowe. Interview by Judith Alexander, 1982, Courtesy of The Judith Alexander Foundation.

Why learn about Rowe?

The art and life of folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe provides a means for exploring the concept of freedom in the United States. Rowe’s life in Georgia spanned the Jim Crow, Civil Rights and Post-Civil Rights Eras. Understanding the history Rowe experienced allows us to view her art as a “radical act of self-expression and liberation in the post-civil rights-era South” ( Stories like Rowe’s are essential elements of the American narrative.

The pictures I am proud of that I have made are of my hand. I leave my hand, just like you leave your hand on the wall. I leave my hand on the wall. When I’m gone they can see a print of my hand. I love that—to see a print of my hand. I’ll be gone to rest, but they can look back and say “that is Nellie Mae’s hand.”

An Interview with Nellie Mae Rowe. Interview by Judith Alexander, 1982, Courtesy of The Judith Alexander Foundation.

Classroom Resource

This inquiry embodies the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s principle of perseverance by highlighting the story and art of Nellie Mae Rowe, a Black female artist who used her later years to pursue the art mediums she enjoyed as a child. Nellie Mae Rowe’s reflection of “really free” embodies the perseverance she needed to accomplish her goals.

Students will critically examining how the concept of “freedom” has been applied to white and Black citizens over time and express ideas about “freedom” through visual art and written claims. Students generate change by using developed claims and art to engage the public in reflection regarding the concept of “freedom” in the United States.

Other Resources

We encourage you to explore these additional resources to learn more about the history and culture that shapes our world.