The daughter of a progressive and prominent civil rights leader, Virginia Jackson Kiah overcame racial barriers to pursue an advanced art education and enjoy a successful career as a portrait painter whose work has been shown in the United States Capitol. Kiah’s mother was Dr. Lillian Carroll Jackson, often referred to as “Ma Jackson” in recognition of her matriarchal, thirty-year leadership of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Kiah and her sister grew up in that city, working alongside their parents at voter registration drives and other organization activities. Virginia’s early passion for art was enthusiastically encouraged and, following her high school graduation, she studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, becoming the first African American student to win the school’s top award in life drawing. At the Teachers College at Columbia University, she received additional honors and earned a master’s degree in 1950. Kiah also trained at the University of Pennsylvania and Art Students League of New York, where her instructors included the noted portraitists Robert Brackman and Frank Vincent DuMond.
In 1950, Virginia Jackson married Calvin Lycurgus Kiah and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where her husband served as a professor and department chair at Savannah State College and Georgia State University over the course of his career. She taught at local Beach High School until 1963, before retiring from education to expand her work as a portrait artist. Her sitters included an array of important leaders in the African American political, civil rights, academic, and spiritual communities; many works were featured in group exhibitions across the Southeast. She established Savannah’s Kiah Museum in 1959; that same year, she became a founding member of the National Conference of Artists, established at Atlanta University in order to “preserve, promote, inspire, and support African American art and culture through the visual arts.” Kiah was actively engaged in art circles and civil rights efforts in Savannah until her death. A former member of the board of trustees of the Savannah College of Art and Design, the college recognized Kiah by naming a campus building in her honor. Today, Kiah Hall houses the SCAD Museum of Art.