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74-year-old paintings connect Great Migration to current events

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 22.
Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art
Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 22.

Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence created his Great Migration Series 74 years ago, but his frank depiction of those events and the African-American experience of the time could be about current events in St. Louis and the United States. And as artists look to conceptualize what happened in Ferguson, they would do well to study Lawrence.The Great Migration Series tackles a unique moment in American history. Over the early decades of the 20th century a great number of African Americans left their homes and history in the South and headed north to major industrialized cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago. Some landed here in St. Louis. In 1941, Lawrence completed 60 paintings representing the northern journey that reshaped this country’s demographics. He was just 23 years old. 

These paintings are currently on display in New York atThe Museum of Modern Art in an exhibit, "One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works," curated by Leah Dickerman and Jodi Roberts

Although the images are displayed across the country, Lawrence’s paintings hold specific relevance for St. Louis. The struggles and circumstances facing African Americans displayed in these works are reflected in much of what has happened during this past year. Three men stand in one painting, backs to the viewer, facing bars, their hands linked by shackles. A quote by Lawrence is attached:

Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.

Lawrence’s sentiment of distrust between the African-American community and law enforcement, penned in 1941, has been echoed by many during protests following the deaths of Michael Brown, VonDerrit Myers, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gibbs, Walter Scott and more. Many have said these fears extend to arrest without provocation.

St. Louis in the Conversation

Jacob Lawrence Train Gates
Credit Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art
Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 1: During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 inches. 45.7 x 30.5 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. Acquired 1942. © 2015

During the Great Migration, St. Louis was both a way station for many on their way farther north and an end goal. According to Gerald Early, a professor of African-American studies at Washington University, St. Louis’ African-American population increased to 94,000 from 45,000 between 1910 and 1930. 

This influx of migrants to the St. Louis area is represented directly in one of Lawrence’s panels. In it people flood railroad gates labeled Chicago, New York and St. Louis. Lawrence paired his image with the words “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes.”

Yet north-bound travelers were often met with the same racism they hoped to flee. Some of the worst racial violence during the Great Migration took place in the North. In 1917 a series of riots broke out when black workers replaced white workers on strike against the Aluminum Ore Co. in East St. Louis. After a city council meeting on the matter, groups of white men formed and attacked African Americans. Violence against African Americans continued throughout the year, resulting in what is sometimes characterized as some of the bloodiest race riots in history. Forty blacks and eight whites died in the violence. Six thousand African Americans were forced to flee their homes.

Lawrence illustrates these events in one panel. Three whites with clubs and knives struggle with two African Americans. An African-American man holds a white man with a raised knife in a headlock. A white man stands over a fallen African-American man, club raised to strike. Lawrence’s caption: “One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis.

Jacob Lawrence East St. Louis
Credit Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art
Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 52: One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis. Casein tempera on hardboard. he Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

This panel falls after two other panels addressing race riots of the time. One foregrounds an angry white man with a club, the next shows homes on fire.

Even if you can't get to New York, Lawrence’s images are available online. St. Louis doesn’t feature extensively throughout the series but is scattered throughout the noted work, highlighting key moments in the depiction of a foundational moment of American history.

Lawrence’s last panel is packed with African-American faces waiting at a train. The caption reads “And the migrants kept coming.”