Jacob Lawrence, the Migration Series, 1940-41. Panel 58: “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.” Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 by 12 inches (45.7 by 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy. © 2015 the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society, New York.
Digital image © the Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York

“If at times my artworks do not express the conventionally beautiful, there is always an effort to express the universal beauty of man’s continuous struggle to lift his social position and to add dimension to his spiritual being.” —Jacob Lawrence, 1970

The opening of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North” in New York City on April 3 marks the first time in 20 years that the 60 panels of Lawrence’s iconic 1941 work have been brought together. Supplemented by other visual, musical, film and literary artwork that gives context to the themes of the 20th century’s Great Migration of millions of blacks from the rural South to the urban North, Midwest and West, the exhibit is a rich, multisensory encounter with history. Walking through it, you can’t help thinking of how far we’ve come, but yet how far we still have to go.

MoMA curator Leah Dickerman told The Root that she strove to create an exhibit evoking a modern library, with vibrant words, images and sounds. As you enter the third floor of the august MoMA, music from the late 1920s through the late ’40s by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson and other notable musicians wafts overhead as you peer, left to right and back, at panels of Lawrence’s Migration Series paintings, set at eye level on the walls of the rectangular, well-lit room. Digital stations are in the center of the main exhibit space, allowing visitors access to related historical books and audio and video recordings.

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You also see entrances to other galleries; one section features music with Southern influences performed for Northern audiences: Anderson’s version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” are highlights. Literary accounts of the migration by Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Claude McKay are in another section, with yet another gallery displaying photographs (including images by Gordon Parks) as well as historical and sociological studies by scholars Carter G. Woodson and Charles Johnson, among others.

By 1941, when Lawrence completed the series at the age of 23, approximately 1.5 million blacks had migrated to the North. Lawrence’s family moved to Harlem in 1930. The young artist’s circle included such mentors as sculptor Augusta Savage, painter Charles Alston and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke, whose 1925 collection The New Negro signaled the Harlem Renaissance movement. Lawrence was tutored in more matters than art: Because of poor housing conditions, lack of employment and rampant discrimination, politics was another hot topic.

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The Depression-era federal Works Progress Administration relieved some of the pressure between 1935 and 1942 by infusing $11 billion into the economy and employing 3 million people across the nation. Cultural work was supported, too. Lawrence was a beneficiary—after organizations such as the Harlem Artists’ Guild fought for the inclusion of Negro artists, and Savage, specifically, advocated for him. According to Dickerman’s excellent exhibit essay, “Fighting Blues,” also crucial to Lawrence’s development was interaction among artists in various genres via WPA support, and history clubs “that proliferated in the wake of the Migration, part of a movement to document, research, and teach black history.”

Lawrence studied black history at the 135th Street New York Public Library (later the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) in Harlem and used this research to inform his earlier multipanel narrative series on Frederick Douglass, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Harriet Tubman. For the Migration Series, he centered on the collective movement of his people rather than individual heroes. Lawrence, according to Dickerman, also “showed himself to be a keen connoisseur of the visual idiom of modern media culture—of graphic illustration, mechanically reproduced photographs, and cinema.”

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Those visual mediums are evident. Lawrence began with the descriptive captions for each painting, then used black paint as the base of each panel, proceeding to integrate lighter colors. He layered flat planes of color one after another, until scenes of black folks huddled in train stations and spare homes; outdoor scenes of depleted Southern farms, or a solitary, bowed black figure mourning as a rope hangs from a tree; jail and courtroom images depicting the “criminal injustice” system; and hopeful celebrations of migration surfaced via his paintbrush strokes.

In the website devoted to the exhibit, each panel is shown with the original captions from 1941 and the revised versions by Lawrence and his wife and fellow visual artist, Gwendolyn Knight, from 1993. An interview conducted by The Root co-founder Henry Louis Gates Jr. with Lawrence and Knight at MoMA in 1995 provides fine insight. In one of several curatorial gems, Yale poet Elizabeth Alexander solicited poems from 10 top black writers, who composed new pieces based on Lawrence’s masterwork.

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For a full schedule of events related to the exhibit, which runs until Sept. 7, go here.

Greg Thomas is a cultural journalist and frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook