'The Great Migration', Jacob Lawrence

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
13 May 2007

The First Wave of the Great Migration (1916-1919) - part I "Around the time of WWI, many African-Americans from the South left home and traveled to cities in the North in search of a better life." © Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of the most distinguished African American painters of the twentieth century. Known for narrative series depicting important events in American history he came to prominence through the "Migration Series" (1941) illustrating the south-to-north mass migration of African Americans after the first world war.

The sixty panels in this series recount vividly the story of the migrants who journeyed north in search of a better life. Each painting is accompanied by a description to add a further dimension to the visual narrative. It is, however, what is left unsaid that is often most poignant in Lawrence's work. In the painting below he substitutes the grotesquery of a lynching and the heckling of an angry mob with the simple yet highly emotive image of an empty noose dangling from the tree and a grieving woman huddled up by its side.

Lawrence's panels convey the discrimination and lack of identity suffered by African American migrants. As the blog "(Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography" has observed:

"in this series Lawrence also tends to paint African Americans in silhouette ... even as he regularly paints Caucasians with discernable facial features. Lawrence's migrants, then tend to be anonymous, often members of largish groups."

Nonetheless, Lawrence's paintings are effective in conveying both the hardships faced by the migrants and also the courage with which they made their journeys. As Lawrence himself has said:

"Uprooting yourself from one way of life to make your way in another involves conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle comes a kind of power, and even beauty. I tried to convey this in the rhythm of the pictures, and in the repetition of certain images."


The First Wave of the Great Migration (1916-1919) - part I "Northern industries offered Southern blacks jobs as workers and lent them money, to be repaid later, for their railroad tickets. The Northbound trains were packed with recruits." © Jacob Lawrence

The First Wave of the Great Migration (1916-1919) - part I "For African-Americans the South was barren in many ways. There was no justice for them in courts, and their lives were often in danger." © Jacob Lawrence

The First Wave of the Great Migration (1916-1919) - part IV "Life in the North brought many challenges, but the migrants' lives had changed for the better. The children were able to go to school, and their parents gained the freedom to vote." © Jacob Lawrence

Urgent: help us expose dark money in politics

Cambridge Analytica was the tip of the iceberg. openDemocracy is investigating how dark money is influencing what we see, hear and think across the world. We have many fresh leads to chase down, but need your support to keep going. Please give what you can today – it makes a difference.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram