In 1924 Howard University did something that no other university in the United States had ever done: It graduated a black as its first fine arts major, colorist painter Alma Thomas. That event is the likely place to begin to trace the long tradition of black art in Washington. And Howard University ever since has been at its center. It was the first major institution for blacks to offer an art curriculum, and the founder of the Howard art department, James V. Herring, in 1943 chartered the first black gallery, the Barnett-Aden.

Today, Barnett-Aden, located near Howard, is one of 19 black-owned galleries in town, and handles "blue chip" artists such as Henry O. Tanner and George Bannister, at prices ranging from $1,500 to $90,000.

While Adolphus Ealey, who inherited the Barnett-Aden collection, credits "old school" artists such as Lois Jones, James Wells and Richard Dempsey with making Washington a national center for black art, "the younger artists haven't formed a school--it's eclectic," he believes. "I don't see anything miraculous happening."

But some among those younger artists bristle at the term "black art."

"I am not a 'black artist' but an Afro-American male who makes visual evidence," says sculptor Ed Love, whose latest metal works pay homage to jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, soldered under the gaze of an old Malcolm X poster. "Black art is the visual evidence of black people's presence. It depends on who makes it and on their consciousness."

Jeff Donaldson, former chairman of Howard's art department and a current faculty member, subscribes to a blatantly political art form that peaked in the 1960s. Africobra (the "African Commune of Bad (later Black) Relevant Artists"), which he founded in Chicago, stresses bright colors, the human figure and images identifying the social, economic and political condition of blacks. Africobra's 14 Washington members still meet for monthly critiques, but they're not a prevailing force.

The "black art" distinction is distasteful to printer Lou Stovall. "We've gotten away from the 1960s consciousness about who was blacker than the next person. I always spoke against a recognizable style for black people. Black art in Washington is not a movement; it's an ongoing tradition."

The tradition may be strong, but it does not necessarily sell paintings or open museum doors. In fact, the black art boom predicted by collectors for years remains a prediction, and black artists here feel underrepresented in museum and gallery shows and undersupported by the black community.

Sam Gilliam's commercial successes make him an exception. His shows sell out at $5,000 to $12,000 per painting; his large-scale commissions go for $50,000 to $100,000.

As a University of Maryland professor, Gilliam leads a seminar, "Art and Issues," and freely mixes the two. "The strongest aspect of black art was as a sidecar to the civil rights movement after the death of (Martin Luther) King," he says. "Its impact has been forgotten. It needs to be rekindled."

"My history doesn't let me buy the notion of art as art, regardless of color," says Ed Love. Car parts and junked bumpers are stacked beside his house. His yard, basement and attic are crammed full of large-scale sculptures.

"We've been taught to believe that we're not showing in museums not based on the quality of our work, but on our color."

Painter Keith Morrison says, "I've not found it easy to get associated with galleries in Washington." He finds it disproportionately unfair: "Why can't mediocre black artists get the same acclaim as mediocre white artists?"

If the gallery system is stacked against them, the economy in general and the depressed marketplace in particular is of less help to aspiring black artists.

"Am I supposed to rail against (National Gallery director) Carter Brown? I'm mad at all these black doctors who won't take some of their money to build a museum to show black artists," Love says.

Lusetha Rolle, co-owner of Nyangoma's Gallery, says, "I can count on one hand the black lawyers, doctors and dentists I've sold to . . . The problem is blacks haven't been involved with museum- and gallery-going from childhood," Rolle says. "And when they do go to museums, they see only work by white artists, and get frustrated. They'd rather spend money on materialistic things that show externally," she says.

Sales are especially slow for younger, less well-known artists. Consider Martha Jackson-Jarvis, 30, winner of Mayor Marion Barry's emerging artist award for 1982. Her infrequent sale is $500 to $600; her highest price so far has been $1,500.

Still, artists find reasons to stay in Washington. Gilliam and Ealey note the appreciative audience. "Washington has always had a large black middle class, because of the government," Ealey says. "Even in the Depression, many blacks kept their jobs. And because of Howard, there's a large black educated population interested in culture."

But there is also the camaraderie or, as Ed Love calls it, the "spiritual connection."

Morrison thinks black artists share mythic concerns, particularly ideas about Africa, a focus on structure and rhythm and a formal compatibility with jazz. Morrison, a University of Maryland faculty member and a native of Jamaica, employs patterns "out of my West Indian-African heritage."

In the last couple of years, Yvonne Carter has shed the European tradition of easel painting, and has literally stepped into her art, reciting poetry at the Corcoran Gallery inside the folds of a painted canvas.

Carter likens her performances to African art, "not made to hang on the wall. And extremely ritualistic."

"There's this whole business of getting back to jazz. Maybe that's the thread I'm looking for," she says.

Sculptor Jackson-Jarvis shaped eerie pod-like pieces by hand for her "East of the Sun, West of the Moon": "There's no mold; they're textured with one little wooden tool. It becomes a chant. Sometimes they're plant-like, sometimes animalistic." In her garage studio on Lawrence Street in Northeast Washington, she rolled the fired pieces in horse dung to achieve a blackened effect. She has also studied primitive firing methods with a Nigerian potter.

As Jackson-Jarvis' work describes a chain of events, it joins the chain: "There's an African link because I'm an African link. Even in the choice of materials . . . I'm part of the continuum."