Giving New Voice to Communal History in Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series

Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, a group of 60 panels that together tell a complete visual story, was first exhibited in 1941 at a New York gallery. The tempera paintings recount the northward migration of African Americans as they abandoned the rural south after World War I for cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago. Lawrence’s angular, starkly colorful scenes detail the difficult but momentarily hopeful quest for better opportunities and lives. Despite its inherently narrative nature, the series has led a segmented life for most of its existence, with the odd-numbered paintings residing in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the evens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The two sets have been reunited a few times, including during a Lawrence retrospective in 2001, but are separated more often than not. This spring, all 60 paintings will be on display together again, in an exhibition that will begin at MoMA and make its way to the Phillips in 2016.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 1 “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 1 “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC


During my recent visit to view the Phillips’ half of The Migration Series, I was struck by the cinematic quality of the paintings and their ability to convey movement, carrying the viewer through both physical and emotional landscapes. The works are not large, each measuring 12” x 18” or 18” by 12”, compelling the viewer to draw in closer and become an intimate witness to the developing narrative. Uninhabited landscapes and cityscapes are interspersed with dense scenes of human activity and motion, like seeing an empty stage subsequently populated by its players. As these figures move restlessly from rural to urban settings, from farms through train stations to tenement houses, the story takes on a cyclical nature. New waves of migrants flee the south while earlier travelers are already discovering new hardships and forms of discrimination in foreign surroundings.

There is minimal supporting text in the gallery, with an introductory paragraph but nothing else on the walls accompanying the works after the story has begun. In the center of the room, visitors can find guides enumerating the paintings, along with the one- or two-sentence captions that Lawrence provided for each scene. Lawrence’s primacy of the visual over the textual in The Migration Series is powerful and brings up interesting questions about the relationship between various modes of historical storytelling, witnessing, and remembrance.

Lawrence’s pictorial record of events, locations, and emotions, entwined throughout the journey of migration, provides a shared memory of, and for, a people and a culture. The series seems to have the ability to project a “voice,” retelling the collective story of a community. Its narrative strength bears a resemblance to oral history or even folk music, serving as cultural history that has been documented by non-textual means and continues to be preserved, or passed down.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 3 “From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC 

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 3 “From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

The physical reunion of all 60 works will be accompanied by an online effort that will bring the complete series together in a new format. The Phillips plans to unveil a new Jacob Lawrence microsite this summer, in conjunction with the upcoming exhibition. The museum’s plans for this online presence include making original video interviews with Lawrence accessible to the public, as well as posting multimedia archival materials that tell the story of his personal history. The addition of Lawrence’s own voice as a mode of oral history has the potential to add new depth to the visual narrative of The Migration Series, its creation, and the events it captures. Though the intimacy of the painted scenes gives the feeling of first-person witness and testimony, as if their creator had been a part of the migration and traveled alongside loved ones through strange territory, Lawrence was not present for this journey.

According to an existing website that the Phillips created in 2013, with background information on Lawrence and his artistic process, Lawrence himself was born in New Jersey. His parents, however, were part of the northward journey that The Migration Series remembers, and I like to imagine his parents passing down an oral account of that family history to Lawrence. His personal conceits of community and culture transcending generations speak to migration as a universal experience, as well as one set in this particular time and place. In fact, The Migration Series harkens to shared human stories of journey and escape from oppression, like the Jewish people’s quest for the Promised Land. Lawrence’s own voice, side-by-side with his visual telling of the migration, has the potential to add a new layer of individual narrative to the unnamed faces he has depicted.

The microsite will display all 60 works of The Migration Series in chronological order, making them available as high-resolution images (as opposed to small thumbnails of the works, which are currently available on the Phillips’ website). Not only does it make sense to knit the physically divided collection together online, where its narrative can be experienced in full chorus, but the act of digital documentation also adds new means of dissemination and preservation. It grants digital cohesion to a series of works that are physically transient, as well as a greater sense of permanence in spite of the narrative of motion and flight.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 11 “Food had doubled in price because of the war,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC 

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 11 “Food had doubled in price because of the war,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 19 “There had always been discrimination,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection,Washington, DC 

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 19 “There had always been discrimination,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection,Washington, DC

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 57 “The female workers were the last to arrive north,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC 

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 57 “The female workers were the last to arrive north,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC