Born in Topeka, Kansas, Douglas developed an interest in art during his childhood and was encouraged in his pursuits by his mother. Douglas graduated from Topeka High School in 1917. He received his B.A. degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1922. In 1925, Douglas moved to New York City and settled in Harlem.
Douglas was a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the “New Negro Movement.” Douglas, along with the philosopher Alain Locke, whose 1925 anthology The New Negro featured Douglas’s illustrations, helped set in motion a new visual language detached from traditional European art training. They absorbed a distinctive African heritage.
Through his covers for Opportunity and The Crisis Douglas set forth a new vision for the black artist. His strong geometric forms and Egyptian profiles resulted in a style later described by cultural critic and educator Richard Powell as “Afro-Cubism.”
In 1926, he loaned his talents to the first and only issue of Wallace Thurman’s magazine FIRE!! and later designed the cover of Thurman’s short-lived magazine Harlem. Douglas became the most sought-after book illustrator and cover designer among the black writers of the time. In 1938, Douglas moved to Nashville, Tennessee to chair the art department of Fisk University, a position he held until his retirement in 1966. He passed away in Nashville in 1979.