She was born in Philadelphia, PA., the daughter of Floarda Howard and Sallie Durham. She attended public schools and then entered Todd’s Art School. In 1895, she became the first black student to receive a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she studied for four years with William Merritt Chase, Charles Grafly, and John Joseph Boyle. She graduated in 1899 and married William Sherman Jackson, a mathematics teacher.
Unlike many of her peers, Jackson did not travel to Europe for further training and thus remained somewhat isolated. Yet her growth and style freed her from becoming another artist with such influence and thus gave her an obvious style her all her own. In her portrait busts, Jackson went far beyond the realistic traditions of the day and at first was not well received. Her fascination and conveyance of the complex and varied physiognomy of black people as a result of race mixing after slavery are a strong point in her work.
Some of the many portrait bust done by her in her lifetime are, Paul Laurence Dunbar 1919, W.E.B. DuBois, Rev. Francis J. Grimke,” Kelly Miller 1929, and W. H. Lewis. Jackson also rendered abstract portraits, such as Head of Negro child 1929, Mulatto Mother and Her child 1929, and Shell-Baby in Bronze 1929. In her active years, her exhibitions included the Corcoran Gallery, Washington D. C. 1915; the Veerhoff Gallery, New York City, 1919; and the National Academy of Design 1916, 1928.
Though she met rebuffs in her attempt to exhibit in her chosen method of portraying the American mulatto, Jackson accomplished enough to put her firmly in the annals of great American sculptors. May Jackson died in 1931.