A Closer Look at Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” the Masterpiece He Made at 23

Julia Fiore
Oct 20, 2018 8:00PM

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 1: During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans, 1940–1941. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Philips Collection.

Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” is rightly hailed as a modern masterpiece of social realism. The series, completed in 1941, chronicles the mass exodus of over a million African-Americans from the rural South to the industrial North between the 1910s and ’20s. Lured by job opportunities, and enabled by a newly accessible railway system, the migrants were also fleeing the racial discrimination and violence propagated by oppressive Jim Crow laws.

Elsa Smithgall, senior curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., organized a major 2015–16 exhibition of the series in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She sees a reflection of our current day in the series. “As much as we would hope we’re in a post-racial world, we’re not,” she said. Lawrence’s seminal work “brings up issues that we are still facing, a century later, based on this time in our history.”

The artist completed his ambitious historical project in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in 1941, when he was just 23 years old. Painted in modest tempera on board, the collection of same-size panels, each 12 by 18 inches, recounts an epic tale of extreme hardship and injustice, as well as buoyant hope. It begins with a group of African-Americans leaving the South by train. Their departure upends Southern black communities, who anguish over whether to make the journey, too. More and more migrants eventually decide to go North, where they face new freedoms and new forms of discrimination.

Carl van Vechten, Portrait of Jacob Lawrence, 1941. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 57: The female workers were the last to arrive north, 1940–1941. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Philips Collection.


“He had a really good sense of choreography in his themes,” Smithgall noted. She compared the paintings, with their cinematic ebbs and flows, to storyboards in a film. “He thought very carefully about the progression from one image to another,” bringing in “syncopated refrains that remind us of the backdrop of jazz—what he was taking in at the Apollo Theater, let’s say.”

The first panel, didactically titled During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes, introduces the artist’s simplified palette and pared-down formal vocabulary. A restless sea of faceless, brown-skinned travelers rendered in thick outlines—a mass of green and black coats punctuated by red, yellow, and blue—stream through three ports marked Chicago, New York, and St. Louis, major Northern centers of migration. “I tried to show the excitement, the crowds, the tension, through the use of color, through the use of shapes, forms,” Lawrence said. “I tried to get a surge of movement in this particular work.”

This opening scene kicks off a monumental story, which Lawrence duly narrates in the title of each of the 60 panels. One major impetus for the Great Migration was the labor shortage Northern industries faced at the time. European demand for American goods was increasing while white workers went off to war. Lawrence illustrates the system—closely resembling indentured servitude—that arose to meet those demands. Labor agents began to recruit a worker pool in the South that they had previously excluded, luring African-Americans with the promise of work, education, and train fare (to be paid back by the migrant out of his pitiful wage).

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 29: The labor agent recruited unsuspecting laborers as strike breakers for northern industries, 1940–1941. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Philips Collection.

In the series, this sinister practice is set in the context of abject poverty, food shortages, unemployment, discrimination, and violence. Lawrence doesn’t shy away from these realities, and his cuttingly concise captions add context and poignancy to the works. A small, malnourished child looks up at the table where his mother is slicing their meager dinner in the 11th panel, Food had doubled in price because of the war. An empty noose hangs limply around a branch in the foreground in a panel titled, with brutal simplicity, There were lynchings. Crowded train station scenes punctuate the series, the refrain of migrants flooding the platforms and train cars imbuing it with a staccato-like rhythm.

Lawrence’s series reveals the gains that life in the North provided, as well as the harsh disappointments. Living conditions were better, declares panel 44, a bountiful still life featuring a hunk of meat and bread. African-Americans could vote in the North, and go to school. But as more migrants flooded the Northern cities, they faced a housing crisis; the industrial companies crowded them into cramped, unhealthy tenement houses.

The black laborers depicted in “The Migration Series” struggle under the weight of their tools. Compare the worker in Lawrence’s fourth panel to the heroic figures in Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today mural (1930–31). Lawrence’s lone black figure lacks the brawny musculature characteristic of the federal art projects commissioned by the New Deal Works Progress Administration (of which Lawrence was a part). In the North, African-Americans were excluded from unions. White workers were hostile toward their new black colleagues, who were often unsuspectingly recruited by labor agents as strikebreakers. Things grew more complicated as white soldiers returned home from the war; at this point, black workers were given the most dangerous jobs, and paid less. Race riots proliferated, and when African-Americans, in search of better housing, moved into new areas, disgruntled residents bombed their homes.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 11: Food had doubled in price because of the war, 1940–1941. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Philips Collection.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 49: They found discrimination in the North.1940–1941. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Philips Collection.

One particularly affecting panel illustrates how this new life could both be radically better than what the Northern migrants had known before, and also insidiously unjust. It depicts a restaurant starkly divided by a yellow rope. On the left, white men, their features crudely delineated, sit reading the paper and smoking a cigar, respectively. On the right, faceless black patrons hunch over their tables, silently eating. Segregation was Jim Crow by another name. Still, life continued; Lawrence illustrates how the migrants resisted this discrimination, creating communities centered around the church, and enjoying their newfound educational opportunities and ability to vote. The series offers an open-ended conclusion. In another train station scene, black figures, suitcases in tow, line the platform: And the migrants kept coming.

Lawrence was himself the son of Southern migrants. Born in Atlantic City in 1917, he moved to Harlem with his mother and sister when he was 13, in 1930. The cultural visionaries of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly the influential teacher Charles Alston, encouraged the young Lawrence, especially his interest in art as a reflection of the black experience. In 1934, Alston moved his educational project, the Harlem Art Workshop, to West 141st Street. The new location became a popular hangout spot for artists to gather and talk.

While he had until then been busy generating genre scenes of Harlem life, Lawrence was inspired by African-American historian Charles Seifert’s lectures on Pan-Africanism at the YMCA. As he later recalled, Seifert tried “to get black artists and young people such as myself…to select as our subject matter black history.” In 1937, he began work on a series about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led a slave rebellion that established the world’s first independent black republic. Lawrence made subsequent series illustrating the hardships and accomplishments of civil rights leaders Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 45: The migrants arrived in Pittsburgh, one of the great industrial centers of the North, 1940–1941. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Philips Collection.

In 1940, Lawrence won a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant to create “The Migration of the Negro,” as it was originally known. The $1,500 grant enabled him to rent his first studio, an unheated space on West 125th Street large enough to allow him to work on all 60 panels at once (artists Romare Bearden and Robert Blackburn and writer Claude McKay had studios in the building, as well). The new Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History and Prints, dedicated that same year, also became a tremendous resource for Lawrence, who researched the history of the migration there.

But Lawrence had never been to the South before; a 1941 trip to southeastern Virginia with his wife, painter Gwendolyn Knight, allowed him to see firsthand how the migration had impacted life for the African-Americans who traveled to the North. Around this time, he was also introduced to Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco, whom he met when Orozco was making his murals at MoMA. Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” Smithgall said, “is essentially like a mural, divided into 60 parts. But he talks about as really one work. That was something he always emphasized.”

To ensure consistency in the palette, Lawrence painted all 60 panels simultaneously, color by color. He started with darker colors like black, adding it to each panel before starting in with the next one. This was an intensely ambitious and practically unheard of way of working, Smithgall explained. “It’s sort of like having 60 balls in the air. How do you possibly juggle that? He had preparatory drawings, but even so, he still had to have a very good sense of picturing these images in his imagination and imagining the works in their entirety, even as they were still in process.” Knight helped him complete the project, preparing the gesso panels and assisting with writing the captions.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north1940–1941. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Philips Collection.

When the series was completed, it was exhibited at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery. The show made history for more than one reason: It marked the first time a black artist was represented by a New York gallery. Fortune magazine published a portfolio of the paintings, an unprecedented level of national exposure for a black artist, catapulting Lawrence to national fame. As Syreeta McFadden asserted in a 2015 essay in The Nation, Lawrence said that he painted the series “without worrying about who would see it. The paintings aren’t as concerned with a white gaze as they are with getting the story clear and right.”

Lawrence had originally imagined the works to be used to educate children about the history of the migration, but the Phillips and MoMA acquired the full set of works, divvying up the odd- and even-numbered panels. The sale made its own history: These were the first works by a black artist purchased by the MoMA. Though it never made the rounds in public schools (the series was, however, eventually translated into a children’s book), after an exhibition of the complete “Migration Series” at the Phillips in 1942, the MoMA organized a widely seen 15-venue national tour. At the same time, as World War II waged on, another wave of migration was underway. The past was also the present.

When all was said and done, more than 6 million African-Americans migrated to the North between 1910 and 1970. Migration abated only when living conditions in the South began to improve with Civil Rights advances. Lawrence’s project radically reimagined history painting for modern times, and dared to elevate the story of a marginalized group to the level of high art, for all people to remember and behold forever. “To me, migration means movement,” Lawrence once said. “There was conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle came a kind of power and even beauty. ‘And the migrants kept coming’ is a refrain of triumph over adversity. If it rings true for you today, then it must still strike a chord in our American experience.”

Julia Fiore