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
, particularly the influential teacher
, 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.