Southern Exodus: The migration paintings of Jacob Lawrence

In November 1941, just before Edith Halpert exhibited Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration of the Negro” at her Downtown Gallery in Manhattan, Fortune magazine published 26 of the 60 panels in the series. With a limited palette of brilliantly saturated colors and in an abstracted, expressionistic style, the relatively small panels (12 in. by 18 in.) of casein tempera on hardboard depicted the migration of black men, and eventually women as well, moving from the rural South to the urban North to find work in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Saint Louis, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh—cities where they had at least some hope for their human dignity as well. It was “one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history,” as Nicholas Lemann wrote in The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America. Overnight Lawrence, who had completed the series at the age of 23, became the most celebrated African-American artist in the country; he continued to hold that distinction, together with his friend Romare Bearden, until his death in 2000.

Lawrence was born on Sept. 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, N.J., to parents who had “come up” as the great migration began during World War I, his mother from Virginia, his father from South Carolina. The family lived for some time in Pennsylvania, and after the marriage failed, his mother moved to Harlem to find work and brought young Jacob and his two siblings there in 1930. In the second phase of the Harlem Renaissance, the boy dreamed of being an artist but hardly dared to think it possible. Fortunately he found a generous and discerning teacher in the painter Charles Alston and another in the sculptor Augusta Savage. And the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project eventually provided him not only with financial support but with his “real education” among fellow artists, writers and intellectuals, as he later wrote.

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In 1938 Lawrence had his first solo show—vigorous, gritty scenes of everyday Harlem life—at the Harlem Y.M.C.A., and in that year also completed a cycle of 41 paintings on the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. In 1939 he did a 32-panel cycle on the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass and also began research at the 135th Street Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) for what was to be his immigration series. Another cycle, on the life of Harriet Tubman, heroine of the Underground Railroad, followed in 1940, by which point he was clearly a rising star.

In a studio made possible by his Federal Arts Project grant, Lawrence and his future wife, Gwendolyn Knight, began by writing the captions that were to go with each panel—terse, impassive statements that became still more laconic when in 1993 the artist renamed his work “The Migration Series” and edited most of the captions.

Beginning with an unforgettable panel of a throng of figures streaming toward ticket windows for Chicago, New York and St. Louis, the narrative varies dramatically from crowded scenes to single figures, from threatened violence to aching intimacy, musically varied between horizontal and vertical panels—“as tightly thought through,” notes Holland Cotter, “as any fresco program by Giotto.”

The terror inspired by sudden arrests and unjust courts, lynchings and the ambiguous duties of the Northern labor agents sent to recruit workers is evoked with searing economy. But you also see and read (image and caption being conceived as one) what other causes there were for the migration—floods on the Mississippi, crop failures and damage from the boll weevil and the steady encouragement of the black press.

The caption for Panel 10 is spare and almost unbearable: “They were very poor.” The housing conditions and educational opportunities are shown to be “better” in the North, but accompanied by increased crowding and tenements, a rising death rate due to tuberculosis, and race riots. One panel on the housing problem is as claustrophobic an image of entrapment as I’ve ever seen; and another, on the infamous East St. Louis riot of 1917, is simply terrifying. A single religious panel presents a church as “one of the [migrants’] main forms of social and recreational activities.”

Lawrence conceived the series as a single work and wanted it shown that way. But some of the panels have such direct emotional and formal impact that you tend to remember them apart: the marvelously syncopated railway car of migrants arriving in Pittsburgh, for example; or the iconic three young girls in bright red, yellow and green dresses writing on a blackboard; or the intent laundress in white, almost certainly inspired by the artist’s own mother, using sheer color to render depth. And so it is with the last panel, in which we see a crowd of people standing on the other side of the tracks from us and read: “And the migrants kept coming.”

The great migration is generally said to have ended in the 1970s, after six million African-Americans had moved to the North. But the show at the Museum of Modern Art, running through Sept. 7 and organized by Leah Dickerman with Jodi Roberts, in cooperation with The Phillips Collection and the Schomburg Center, concentrates on the ’30s and ’40s. Its title is One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North. The “Series” is being shown in its entirety at the Modern for the first time in 20 years, and it is marvelously contextualized in three surrounding galleries.

In the central gallery you can hear the voices of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson and Huddie (Lead Belly) Ledbetter. Most moving of all are two films. One shows Marian Anderson, excluded in 1939 from Constitution Hall but then singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” in front of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000, with millions more listening at home. The second is of Billie Holiday, reprising in 1959 her signature song from 1939, “Strange Fruit.” (It stuns with its stark evocation of lynching, while Lawrence’s two panels on lynching hang on the other side of the gallery wall.)

There is also a bracing selection of books by writers like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes (whose book One-Way Ticket Lawrence illustrated); photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and Gordon Parks; sociological studies and more visual material by Alston, Bearden and Charles White. Among the many special commissions accompanying the show are a self-guided walking tour of Harlem and the Migration Series Poetry Suite, in which 10 poets selected by Elizabeth Alexander read their responses to Lawrence’s work.

Lawrence first spoke of his art as “dynamic cubism,” then later as a form of expressionism. But he was most deeply influenced by the history of his community and particularly by his early experience of the sights and sounds of Harlem. Critics struggle to express their admiration for his combination of aesthetic refinement and social commitment, so seldom found in such powerful balance. And if his work persuades through its documentary power, it is equally a declaration of human dignity in all its anguish and hope. Though much has changed since these images were produced, their relevance remains. Who would dare to say the struggle has ended?

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