Poverty. Police violence. Overcrowded trains and tenements. Segregation. Race riots. Death. For all the hardships and trauma depicted in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (on view at Seattle Art Museum through April 23), there are two paintings near the end that are striking in their optimism. One shows a group of African Americans standing in line to vote, a freedom only attainable in the North. The other depicts three schoolgirls in primary colors writing numbers on a chalkboard, each outstretched arm reaching a little farther than the last.
It’s not hard to imagine these bold, self-determined girls going on to become engineers at NASA, like the ones in the movie Hidden Figures.
This panel—number 58 in a series of 60 images telling the story of millions of African Americans who made the dangerous journey from the rural South to the industrial North during and after World War I—illustrates the educational opportunities the North had to offer. That these students are female seems in keeping with Lawrence’s philosophy of art as intentional storytelling.
“We hear about Molly Pitcher [and] Betsy Ross,” the artist said of his paintings about Harriet Tubman, completed in 1940, the year before The Migration Series was finished, “[but] the Negro woman has never been included in American history.”
Jacob Lawrence had a gift for gathering and telling histories that had yet to be told. Born in 1917 in Atlantic City to parents who were among the first African Americans to join the mass movement known as the Great Migration, Lawrence moved with his mother and siblings to Harlem in 1930, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The sights of the city became central to the young artist’s distinctive and masterful visual vocabulary. Tall, imposing buildings teem with human activity. Anxious diagonals vibrate with saturated color. Wide-brimmed hats and fashionable capes accent seas of brown faces.
In Harlem, Lawrence was mentored by an auspicious array of artists and intellectuals, including the painter Charles Alston, librarian and future civil rights organizer Ella Baker, and pan-African historian Charles Seifert. It was Seifert who encouraged Lawrence to take Black history as his subject matter, a topic he dove into like the scholar and educator he was destined to become. Lawrence’s first major work was a series of 41 paintings about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939. It was one of the first exhibitions of a living Black artist at a major museum, a success that laid the groundwork for the most ambitious undertaking of his career.
Completed with a grant from the prestigious Rosenwald Fund when Lawrence was only 23 years old, The Migration Series began with extensive research into the oral histories of African Americans who had made the journey north. With the assistance of artist Gwendolyn Knight—whom he married in 1941—Lawrence distilled these histories into 60 captions, which he illustrated in the manner of a graphic novel or filmstrip. The images were painted all at once, in casein tempera on prepared hardboard panels, like miniature murals that bear some compositional similarity to ukiyo-e woodblock prints. They tell stories of poverty and injustice in the South; of unscrupulous labor agents recruiting unsuspecting Black men to break strikes in Northern factories and of crowded, unhealthy living conditions in labor camps. They also show new kinds of racism encountered in the North—genteel segregation, NIMBY terrorism, and the violence of white workers who resented the influx of cheap labor—essential context for the understanding of contemporary American history.
And then there are the memories of places left behind. The uncanny emptiness of an abandoned room, edgy and angular like a Cubist dream. The rows of crops on southern farms where Black workers had once been “part of the soil,” left to dry and rot with no one to tend them. The sickly branch where a loved one was lynched, still warm with the spirits of those who never got to make the journey.
When the series was completed in 1941, it was exhibited at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, making Lawrence the first Black artist represented by a New York gallery. Lawrence had “made it” in the commercial art world, but an educational mission remained at the heart of his practice. In 1946, he was invited by Josef Albers to be the first African American artist to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. A teaching appointment at Pratt followed, and in 1970, he was offered a professorship at the University of Washington.
In Seattle, Lawrence influenced a whole generation of artists including 2016 Stranger Genius Award recipient Barbara Earl Thomas, his former student and current vice president of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation. Lawrence remained here until his death in 2000, and it is Seattle’s status as his adopted home that made this exhibition possible.
It’s rare to see the entire Migration Series in one place. The odd-numbered panels are owned by the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the even-numbered panels are in the collection of MoMA, New York. Both institutions mounted recent exhibitions of the entire series in anticipation of the artist’s 100th birthday, and SAM is their final stop before they go back to their respective collections.
Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series is on view at Seattle Art Museum through April 23. Several lectures and community events are planned for the duration of the exhibition, including an appearance by Isabel Wilkerson, author of the bestselling history of the Great Migration The Warmth of Other Suns on March 29. Ticket info and a complete schedule is available in The Stranger's Things To Do: Art calendar.