People on the Move

Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series

October 8, 2016 - January 8, 2017

Exhibition Images

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 passed on to him from the Harlem community, from the street orators and preachers to the librarians, teachers, and Apollo Theater actors. Lawrence heard their stories, observed their struggles, and witnessed firsthand the realities of life in the “Promised Land.” In his Migration Series, Lawrence reminds us of our shared history and at the same time invites us to reflect on our contemporary world: “To me, migration means movement. There was conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle came a kind of power and even beauty. ‘And the migrants kept coming’ is a refrain of triumph over adversity. If it rings true for you today, then it must still strike a chord in our American experience.”

This fall, The Phillips Collection presents all 60 panels of The Migration Series, reuniting the Phillips’s odd-numbered panels with the Museum of Modern Art’s even-numbered panels from their split acquisition in 1942. Shaped by an interdisciplinary team of scholars, this exhibition explores the historical, literary, socio-cultural, aesthetic, and contemporary manifestations of migration that underlie Lawrence’s powerful visual narrative. The presentation is complemented by a new interactive website, as well as a variety of community events that further engage visitors in the multifaceted story of the Great Migration from the rich perspectives of music, theater, dance, and poetry. 

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series website

Explore the lasting cultural, political, and societal impact of the Great Migration through the life and work of artist Jacob Lawrence.

Browse all 60 panels from The Migration Series and delve into Jacob Lawrence's art and life through photographs, poetry, and music from the Great Migration, Harlem, and more. The website features the artist's first hand accounts—clips from two never-before-published interviews with the artist—as well as perspectives from a range of contemporary voices. Continue the story of migration by sharing what you think #Panel61 of The Migration Series would look like.  

The Migration Series for K-12 Educators

Explore Jacob Lawrence’s life, process, and influences that shaped the creation of The Migration Series on the Prism.K12 website for educators. Learn about the artist and the series through delving into themes of migration, community, segregation, discrimination, and narrative storytelling.

This online resource is part of Prism.K12, an innovative teaching tool for K–12 teachers of any subject to create rich arts-integrated curricula. The site offers ideas for individual, group, and classroom activities, such as making murals, writing poems, research projects, and more.

The exhibition organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in collaboration with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 

The exhibition is presented by

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Brought to you by the Exhibition Committee for People on the Move:
Elaine Reuben and The Garcia Family Spotlight Foundation, founded by Julie and Jon Garcia

Additional in-kind support is provided by