Jacob Lawrence and the Great Migration

Guest post by Peter Rutkoff

A new exhibit, “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works,” opens today at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We invited Peter Rutkoff, c0author of  Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations, to offer this appreciation of Lawrence and his work.

Jacob Lawrence post
I marvel at the circumstantial miracle that allowed a twenty-three-year-old African American from the South to create the artistic masterpiece of the Great Migration. I equally marvel that such a wonderful creative series—sixty panels that “read” like the pages in a children’s book—has never found a permanent home. Instead, as we will soon witness at the Museum of Modern Art, the Great Migration Series only negotiates short-term stays at any single place before it re-divides and shuttles back to its other residences.

Jacob Lawrence painted the history of African America. And by the time the Rosenwald Foundation awarded him a fellowship for the Migration Series, he had already completed three sequences of paintings on Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint L’Ouverture. These precursors, the historical ancestors of African America, allowed Lawrence to tell the epic story of migration and transformation that changed us all.

Imagine those who resided in Lawrence’s imagination, the teachers and mentors who guided him to greatness and informed the beauty and power of his art. His Southern family, those who brought him North from South Carolina and Virginia; his mid-Harlem neighborhood that introduced him to the Harlem Artists Guild, to Augusta Savage’s WPA-funded Harlem Community Arts Center, and to the towering presence of Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church; and to the intellectual nexus of Harlem—the Schomburg Library. And, yet, nothing compared to the intellectual and artistic community that comprised what he called the “dawn patrol.”

Along with his friend, fellow Southerner Romare Bearden, Lawrence joined a small circle of artists and writers in Harlem in the late 1930s. They called themselves the 306 Group, after the address on West 141st Street that Harlem WPA muralist Charles Alston had converted into a studio. They painted and wrote and debated, and as the “dawn patrol” hit all the local spots, including Mom Young’s, where “for twenty-five cents you could get a beer that she made herself in a coffee-can-sized container.”

Often joined by writers Countee Cullen and Ralph Ellison or WPA Negro Theater Unit actors Rex Ingram and Canada Lee, as well as Alston and the young female painter (and Lawrence’s future wife) Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence and Bearden helped form 306 into a salon of ideas and culture. As members of the Second Harlem Renaissance they saw themselves as black artists embracing modernist aesthetics and racial solidarity.

In this way, Lawrence’s voice, at once visual and historic, spoke of and to the experiences of masses of African Americans who had braved the journey North—one that he understood in epic, indeed biblical terms—during and after the First World War, a half-generation earlier. But he did so at the very dawn of a Second Great Migration whose journey was about to begin with the shattering of peace in 1939.

Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” continued his journey as an historian of Black America, and like so much of art that aspires to greatness, did so in the language of the people who Lawrence so beautifully rendered.

rutkoffPeter M. Rutkoff is a professor of American studies at Kenyon College. He is the coauthor, with William B. Scott, of  Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations (forthcoming this fall in paperback) and New York Modern: The Arts and the City.