People on the Move
More than 75 years ago, a young artist named Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) set to work on an ambitious 60-panel series portraying the Great Migration, the movement between the World Wars of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North in search of a better life. The mass exodus prompted by wartime shortages and oppressive conditions for blacks in the South, was the largest population shift of African Americans since the time of slavery. Lawrence had spent the past three years addressing similar themes of struggle, triumph, and adversity in his narrative portraits on the lives of Harriet Tubman, leader of the Underground Railroad (1940), Frederick Douglass, abolitionist (1939), and Toussaint L'Ouverture, liberator of Haiti (1938).
Born in Atlantic City to parents who had made the migration North from Virginia and South Carolina, Lawrence spent his childhood in Philadelphia and Harlem among a continually expanding community of southern migrants. As a teenager, Lawrence exhibited artistic promise attending the Harlem Art Workshop and became immersed in Harlem's vibrant cultural life. Through such mentors as artist Charles Alston, sculptor Augusta Savage, poet Claude McKay, and philosopher Alain Locke, Lawrence was exposed to the latest currents in modern art, finding sympathy with the work of the German Expressionists, social realists, and Mexican muralists. In 1940, Lawrence conceived of the idea to create The Migration of the Negro (now known as The Migration Series). With support from a Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship, the young artist was able to rent a studio at 33 West 125th Street. There, in just under a year, with the assistance of his future wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence realized his 60-panel epic, the largest series of his career.
In telling the story of the Great Migration, Lawrence drew not only upon primary accounts he consulted at the New York Public Library, but also on the oral histories