Friday, February 18, 2011

Black History Month Feature: Jacob Lawrence and the Migration Series

Southern African Americans' Trek From Rural South to Urban North Documented on Canvas

Artist Jacob Lawrence painted the
"Migration of the Negro" series
from 1940-1941
During World War I, many African Americans took up arms to defend their home country despite the fact that their equal participation in its government was severely crippled by southern Jim Crow legislation and Ku Klux Klan led terrorism. When they returned home after the armistice, they justifiably expected that their sacrifices would be rewarded with increased rights and equality. 14.4% of African Americans who served during the war lost their lives, but the bloodshed did not end when the survivors returned home. In 1919, of the 70 African Americans who were lynched, 10 were veterans who had fought to preserve the freedoms of their murderers.1 

These injustices were just one factor sparking the first Great Migration of African American families from their long-time homes in the southern United States to the urban industrial centers of the north. Seeking relief from social and economic repression these migrants sought factory jobs in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington, DC. This movement was not undertaken without a great deal of courage and pain. Most black families were leaving the only homes they had ever known for unfamiliar urban spaces. Hopes of greater social equality were soon mitigated by restrictive real estate covenants and hastily replicated Jim Crow-type restrictions, and tensions mounted with recent immigrant populations with whom they for jobs and housing. 

Amidst all of this turmoil, a flourishing of the African American arts scene was in full swing in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. A young artist black artist named Jacob Lawrence had a front-row seat to the Great Migration and its effects. He painted series of panels illustrating the era, including the hardships of sharecropping labor in the south and the violence of race riots in the urban north. The panels, and the captions composed by Lawrence for a studio showing of his work represent a vivid crystallization of memory. Though they are indeed the visions of one individual, they capture the spirit of many, perhaps even better than a photograph.

Lawrence's panels were purchased by the the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. In 1995, the Phillips created an education series based on the panels with a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, DC. The resulting documentary film includes interviews with Jacob Lawrence, and a unique analysis of his striking visual representation of history.

1. Digital History, The Great Migration, University of Houston: 2006,; accessed: 2/17/2011

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