A Masterful Move

Much like the black community it depicted, Jacob Lawrence's iconic 'Migration Series' was torn apart. Now, at a new exhibition, the world can finally see it as the artist intended.

Panel 15

One's thanks for the work of Jacob Lawrence—an American painter of ingenious vision and remarkable aesthetic grace—must always be twofold. The duality stems from what was, throughout his career, a truly hybrid mission. Lawrence made history with his 1943 "Migration Series," now on display in its entirety in the airy rooms of the Phillips Collection in Washington. With its creation, Lawrence—born in the North amidst a Great War and as the stream of northbound black migrants was reaching its peak—presided over an unprecedented animation of gritty history into high art.

Today we have a word for someone who, like Lawrence, draws from historic memory and then distills it into a single artistic vision. This is the graphic novelist, and the hallmark of such narration is its continuity. Yet this stunning series of 60 painted wood panels and accompanying text—a portrait of the nearly two million people of color who flowed from the dusted towns of the Old South to the gleaming, industrial north—has rarely been joined in sequence.


Panel 3

Like the families disunited by the upheavals of the 30-year migration, Lawrence's series was intended to stay whole; but in 1942—at the behest of the buyer, Adele Rosenwald Levy (who adored panel 42)—the story was sundered from itself. The even-numbered panels were sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and every other panel has since been housed at the Phillips Collection.

The paintings are together again at the Phillips for the first time in 15 years. The re-unification is not only symbolic but is an essential prerequisite to understanding the scope of Lawrence's achievement. The genesis of the series is itself a whole history. One element of this is methodological: In order to keep his blacks, greens and yellows consistent while constructing such an enormous landscape, Lawrence daubed each block in patient sequence, from dark to light in his Harlem studio—ensuring the Great Migration arrived at once or not at all.

Of course, the movement of black Americans was likewise comprehensive, spanning thousands of miles and two generations—a movement tied to labor, war and above all, promise. Between 1910 and 1920, the number of blacks employed in Northern industry nearly doubled. Tales of fair jobs or singing gigs filtered back along the roads and rails that brought blacks north. New arts bubbled up and out from cultural centers like Harlem and Chicago, and the Frontier West became a place of integrated influences as blacks pushed beyond their former limits.

Lawrence, a child of the North but equally, in his words, "a son of the great migration," had long painted with an eye to the past, having completed narrative paintings devoted to folk heroes like Toussaint L'Ouverture, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. His later documentary painting, of pool halls and street scenes was entirely modern. But the career-making "Migration Series" split the difference—the archival material of this historic moment still lived and breathed in his midst. Granted federal monies from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, and having learned wood block printing as well as painting techniques, the 22-year-old Lawrence began to canvass the world that migration had wrought.

He frequented art workshops in Harlem, mingled with actors at the Apollo Theater and grilled the transplanted street talkers of black New York. He conducted research at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, reading period works by historians Carter G. Woodson and Emmett J. Scott. Dispatches from black press outlets like the Amsterdam News and Chicago Defender steamed like letters across an ocean, chronicling the years of journey to Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. He swallowed and revised these accounts into the graphic narrative of exodus we see today.