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The Great Migration: Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration Series

This is a guide to the work of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series with information and resources on the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern cities across America during 1910 and 1970.

The Artist


From the Phillips Collection:

More than 75 years ago, a young artist named Jacob Lawrence set to work on an ambitious 60-panel series portraying the Great Migration, the flight of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North following the outbreak of World War I. By Lawrence's own admission, this was a broad and complex subject to tackle in paint, one never before attempted in the visual arts. Yet,  Lawrence had spent the past three years addressing similar themes of struggle, hope, 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).

Lawrence found a way to tell his own story through the power and vibrancy of the painted image, weaving together 60 same-sized panels into one grand epic statement. Before painting the series, Lawrence researched the subject and wrote captions to accompany each panel. Like the storyboards of a film, he saw the panels as one unit, painting all 60 simultaneously, color by color, to ensure their overall visual unity. The poetry of Lawrence's epic statement emerges from its staccato-like rhythms and repetitive symbols of movement: the train, the station, ladders, stairs, windows, and the surge of people on the move carrying bags and luggage.


The Phillips Collection

Click HERE to explore the Phillips Collection online exhibition of The Migration Series. 

The Museum of Modern Art

Click HERE to view MoMA's interactive exhibition, One Way Ticket.

Panel No. 23. The migration spread.
1940–41, Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1942