Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, completed in 1941, depicts African Americans’ movement from the South to the North associated with the first and second World Wars and the years between them, approximately 1914–1941. The series consists of 60 tempera paintings. The complete series was first shown in Manhattan in 1941. With his solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery, Lawrence became one of the first African American artists to have a New York gallery show. He was also one of the few artists until that time to focus on the Great Migration. The instant success of the exhibition and recognition of Lawrence’s unique talent drew the attention of the art world. The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York both decided to acquire the series; each museum now owns 30 paintings.
The individual works, along with the people involved, depict a wide range of places, environments, nature, transportation, life ways, and working conditions both in the southern sending communities and in northern locations, especially the African American neighborhood of Harlem in New York. They explore the impact of the Great Depression, one reason that people left the South, and the growth of industry that attracted workers to the North. From small details of crops dying in the field, through crowds of people in train stations, to discrimination and race riots, Lawrence shows key aspects of this complex period of upheaval and adjustment in African American lives.
Creating such a large number of works was both a conceptual and technical challenge. Before beginning the paintings themselves, Lawrence created the preliminary materials, including drawings and captions. Gwendolyn Knight, his wife, was an artist as well; she worked with him on preparing the boards. Lawrence worked on all 60 paintings at once, applying the same color to each one. The bold colors, striking compositions, and a graphic style that is more typical of prints are among their distinctive aspects.
Online exhibitions were launched in 2015, connected to a People on the Move exhibition that was jointly curated between Phillips Collection and MOMA, along with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Phillips Collection’s interactive website includes, in addition to images of all 60 paintings, materials related to the migration process and Harlem in Lawrence’s time, as well as interviews with Lawrence and letters from migrants.