The Great Migration – Paula Murphy on African-American artist Jacob Lawrence

An Irishwoman’s Diary

The Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute recently hosted a panel on “Migration and its Artistic Representation”. While this was an examination of the subject in its contemporary context, it prompts mention of a 20th-century example of the subject – and perhaps one of the most perfect – which was painted in New York in the early 1940s and is little known outside America.

Now titled The Migration Series, it depicts the movement of vast numbers of African-Americans from the rural south in America to the urban north in the course of the early 20th century, identifying its causes and its consequences.

The African-American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), a son of migrant parents, lived much of his life in Harlem. Speaking later in life about of the poverty of the tenement homes in New York, he revealed how these poor living quarters inspired him to become an artist. It was only in retrospect, he said, that he realised he had been surrounded by art when he was growing up. Visualising this experience, he painted an image of nine black figures sleeping side by side in a bleak room, enlivened only by the nine richly-coloured blankets covering them.

A school drop-out in the late 1920s, Lawrence turned early to art. His unique style – not devoid of influence from the art he saw in galleries in New York at the time – was quickly recognised. Interested in black history, he embarked on a series of paintings of African-American activists (Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman), before tackling more recent history, learned initially from the narratives he heard recounted in his neighbourhood, the stories of how many of the people in Harlem came to be there.


Realising these stories were not confined to the people of his particular area, Lawrence sought to find out more in his local library, the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, the same library used later by James Baldwin. Dedicated to black history and literature, the library is now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Lawrence's questions were many – what had caused the migration; how did the migrants travel and to what different locations; what conditions did they find on their arrival; in what way did they benefit by the move and what did they leave behind.

Newspaper archives proved to be one of the most useful resources for Lawrence. Having served originally as a source of information for the migrants in their endeavour, the newspapers form part of their story and therefore appear in several of the paintings.

Lawrence’s research resulted in his depiction, over a series of 60 paintings, what has now come to be known as the Great Migration.

Lawrence conceived of the work as a story, identifying the titles of each of the painting before considering their composition. Since the migration began during the first World War, the first painting in the series shows a large gathering of figures at a railway station buying train tickets for Chicago, New York and St Louis.

The train station makes regular appearances throughout the series, indicative of the mass movement of people and their principal mode of transport. The 60 paintings are small, uniform in size (12 x 18 ins; 30 x 45 cms) in both landscape and portrait format (horizontal and vertical), and retain a stylistic unity in colour and pattern.

Completed in 1941, the series was shown at the Downtown Gallery in New York, having already caused something of a sensation by receiving considerable coverage in Fortune Magazine a month earlier.

Subsequently the series went on tour in the US, returning to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1944.

By this time the paintings had been sold, not to one individual or gallery but, more unusually, they were to be shared by two prime collections of modern art in America, MoMA and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Rather than split down the middle, the series was divided into even (MoMA) and uneven (Phillips) numbers.

Since 1944, the two collections have only been brought together for exhibition on two occasions – and have never been seen outside the US.

In 1993/95 the 60 paintings were shown together again at MoMA. It was on this occasion that many of the titles were changed to incorporate the term African American.

All 60 painting were exhibited again in 2016/17 in Washington, on which occasion I was fortunate to see the whole series in the Phillips Collection. I had previously known nothing of Jacob Lawrence and was scarcely more familiar with the subject of his paintings.

Isabel Wilkerson, in her book The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), has described this migration as the biggest underreported story of the 20th century in the US.

While Lawrence was necessarily only depicting the subject up to the beginning of the 1940s, the migration was to continue into the 1970s.

By then, in America, some six million black southerners had left the land of their birth and moved to the industrial north in search of a better life.

The last painting in Lawrence’s series, painting number 60, titled And the Migrants Kept Coming, shows a richly colourful gathering of people of all ages waiting on as station platform, with their luggage, for the train to take them to their new life.