American Odyssey


Epic Migration Series Chronicles People, Country on the Move

Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series,” comprised of 60 small, painted panels, is a legendary thread in the history of American art — and the story behind both the art and the artist are integral to that legend. The panels form an epic narrative that details the migration of vast numbers of African Americans from the rural South to urban points in the North in the aftermath of World War I — an exodus spurred by racism and a lack of opportunity that resonates to this day.

As such, “The Migration Series” is a masterful example of art as a form of literature, chronicling a specific and uniquely American experience. Lawrence, looking back on the series in his old age, said as much in 1992: “I would hope that it … represents a fabric of our people, of our history, and when I say our history, I mean American history.”

Rarely seen in their entirety, the 60 panels are now whole again for “The Great American Epic: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series” at the Phillips Collection.

The fact that the panels have been reunited is also part of the lore behind the work, because when Lawrence completed the series in 1941, both Duncan Phillips (founder of the Phillips Collection) and New York’s Museum of Modern Art coveted the entire work, but had to content themselves with only being able to purchase half of the panels.

Phillips, an eclectic, enthusiastic and astute collector, took a lot of pride in that purchase because, like many others, he saw its inherent value as a dramatic chapter in American history told through sparse splashes of color and brushwork. Indeed, when you look at it from beginning to end, “The Migration Series” feels like an opera or a well-directed film, with its numbered sequences each accompanied by a carefully researched script.

Adding to this artistic achievement is the fact that Lawrence was only 23 when he finished the series — a piece for which he will forever be known. It’s not that the acclaimed African American artist, who died in 2000, didn’t do other influential works — rather it’s that Lawrence captured a long, gigantic convulsion across large swaths of America and made it vividly and powerfully permanent.

This is not like the photographers who captured the violence and injustices of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This is art unforgettably done, simply made and simply stated. It’s like an oral history that becomes enshrined and thickened with each viewing and with each viewer. As the Phillips Collection put it: “Capturing racial ruptures of the day, Lawrence recorded the search of a people for greater economic and social justice.”

Lawrence himself was the son of a migrant couple in search of a better life. He was born in 1917 in New Jersey but ended up in the vibrant atmosphere of Harlem, where his art schooling began at the Utopia Children’s House, a community daycare center. Later, while working in the Works Project Administration during the Great Depression, he began painting scenes of Harlem, encountering other notable American artists and creating several series portraying African American heroes Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti. Those multi-panel works on Douglas and Tubman led to a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, which allowed him to set up a studio and begin work on his migration series.

Soon after, 32 panels were published in Fortune magazine and exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in New York, earning Lawrence instant recognition as the first African American artist to be represented by a major New York commercial gallery.

Lawrence continued to garner acclaim throughout his 65-year career for his dynamic style of modernism, which used bold colors and sharp, Cubist-like forms to recount the history and struggles of African Americans. And nowhere is this style more evident than in “The Migration Series,” whose panels are all about movement, the breath of life, and the simplicity of tales told around a campfire.

The accompanying panel captions such as “They left because the boll weevil had ravaged the cotton crop” or “Food had doubled in price because of the war” don’t merely describe the scene — they are the scene, from raw cotton plants destroyed by a beetle-like pest to tall, emaciated schoolchildren. Through these scenes, we get a glimpse into why so many people uprooted their lives, leaving behind the rural South for big industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, abandoning what was familiar, adjusting to a new kind of discrimination, and creating a distinct world of their own.

In this way, the panels are more than a story about race in America because migration, although different in impetus and motivation, has been a theme throughout world history. Looking at these panels, you realize how these stories begin — universal stories of seeking dignity and a better life that cross racial and ethnic lines.

Lawrence died at the age of 82 also having told other great American stories, from the civil rights movement and the Harlem Renaissance all the way up to his last public work, the mosaic mural “New York in Transit,” which was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station. They are as vivid as any of the panels in “The Migration Series,” although they don’t capture the dreams of an entire people and generation quite like “Migration” did. And even today, the series seems as fresh as the first time it blossomed in 1941, when it revealed the great rumbling of people forever changing not only their own destinies, but that of their country as well.

The Great American Epic: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series through Oct. 26 Phillips Collection 1600 21st St., NW For more information, please call (202) 387-2151 or visit

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.